Baghdad’s Widows Training and Development Centre offers training to improve widows’ chances of employment or enable them to set up their own businesses to support their families.
Established in 2006 and funded by a number of international charities, the center has initiated a number of training and awareness workshops to support widows and orphans financially, socially and psychologically.
Besides providing free of charge training courses in nursing, computer skills, sewing and English, the center also holds workshops to improve the women’s knowledge of Iraq’s social security system, personal status law and the legal rights of widows and divorcees.
Widow Majda Abdul Amir Jaber is a mother of eight. She says she came to the center with the aim of finding a way to supplement the pension left by her dead husband.
“Conditions for widows are very bad because the salary paid by social security is very meager. I am not entitled to it because I receive a pension [from my late husband], I receive 348 [thousand Iraqi dinars] every two months, that is why I am not covered by the social security system. I came to this center for help and to learn many things.”
A widow’s standard monthly social security payment is around 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($85). Each child receives 15,000 ID ($13).
Jaber’s husband was killed four years ago by gunmen in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk. He was just one of the tens of thousands of victims of the sectarian chaos that engulfed the country in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“I have been a widow for four years now, but I have no idea of where to go [to get my rights], therefore I came to the center. We heard about it and we were enrolled in courses. We got to know the social care salary and the documents required, and Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiya [personal status law]. We registered for training workshops and we will in turn train other women like us who are ignorant of this issue. We learned a lot of information. The courses were free of charge. We benefited a lot, even the transport fees were given to us. It did not cost us a penny, on the contrary, we learned many things,” says Jaber.
Many widows are barely able to read and write, imprisoned inside their homes by families who do not allow them to work for social reasons.
A Ministry of Planning report compiled in 2007 put the number of divorcees and widows at around one million out of a total of 8.5 million women aged between 15 and 80.
Of those, only 84,000 receive government support from the Ministry of Labor and Social Support. That support amounts to between 50,000 and 120,000 Iraqi dinars - $40-$95 - a month.
Many widows struggle with the realities of their new lives; raising children alone, with little money or family support.
Adawiya Jabbar Qatih, a 39 year-old mother of three, says she lives with her children in a small room in her parents’ house and her husband's pension is barely enough to put her children through school.
“I came to this centre through the local council. It is really good. It teaches sewing, nursing and computer skills. They give us stationery and clothes and they even covered transport costs.”
Mother of four Wijdan Ibrahim also joined the center to earn more money. Her husband, a member of the disbanded Iraqi army, was killed in 2006 at the height of sectarian violence.
“I receive about 406 [thousand Iraqi dinars] every two months and frankly it is not enough. I have four children, all of them at school. I am trying [to make ends meet]. I came to the center and I learned sewing. They trained me and I am working here to support myself and my children,” says Ibrahim, who works at the center’s workshop sewing linen sheets for the Ministry of Defense.
Salme Jabbour is a women’s activist and the manager of the center. She says widows desperately need help to cope with their daily needs.
According to her, the center has created job opportunities for 2000 widows including 25 women employed at the center’s nursery and kindergarten, which was opened with the support of the French embassy in Baghdad. An additional 75 widows work at the center’s sewing workshops.
She explains that the center receives financial support and aid from more than 20 charities and private companies. Key supporters are Oxfam GB, Al-Maktoom Charity Organization and Zain Telecom Company which routinely provide food, clothes and schooling material for widows and orphans.
According to Jabbour, the center accepts support offered by all bodies as long as they respect the center’s independence.
“We contact all the charities and civil society organizations to support us without conditions. We do not accept the imposition of any political conditions or any other conditions that conflict with the activities and work of the center because we are an independent civil society organization which works for developing Iraqi society.”
During Saddam's reign, widows were paid monthly benefits and given land and a car, which helped to placate many. He also rewarded members of the military who married widows.
Those benefits stopped when he was toppled.
In 2009, a new law was passed to help war victims and their relatives, and a state-run compensation committee to help those hurt by militant attacks began its work in July 2011.
Tens of thousands of men -- soldiers, police, insurgent fighters and civilians -- have died in bombings, tit-for-tat sectarian slaughter and other violence during a war that has by some estimates killed more than 100,000 Iraqis.