Widows Face Challenges, Tough Conditions In Iraq

The violence in Iraq has displaced millions — and among the most vulnerable are widows.

Frequently with no means of support or protection, some of these women are reduced to begging or prostitution to survive. Baghdad's local government recently opened a trailer park refuge for women who have lost their husbands, but the women and the shelter are victims of neglect.

"My baby boy, your enemy is lost in the desert, don't be afraid," sings Hiba Attiyah, one of the women in the refuge, to her crying child.

The child won't be soothed and clutches desperately at Attiyah's dress. The youngest of seven children, he was only 1 month old when his father was killed by gunmen, Attiyah says. Then she was displaced from her neighborhood.

"When my husband was alive I used to depend on him for everything," Attiyah says. "After his death, I've been through many black days and difficult times. My three boys did not come here to live with me in this trailer because there is not enough space — they live now with my mom, and I don't get to see them much."

Dire Conditions

Attiyah moved to this widow's trailer park two weeks ago, and the conditions are dire.

"You will hear many sad stories here in this trailer park — so many tragedies," Attiyah says. "The government does not care about us widows."

Outside, other women covered in long black veils streaked with dust walk among the stark white trailers.

There is no shade from the unrelenting sun and there is nothing green. A large dusty parking lot is the only place their children can play. There is also no electricity or running water for the trailers.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, says Murtada Idan, the guard who protects this place.

"The contractor who built this compound took the money and did nothing," Idan says. "There are 120 widows and their families who live here but they suffer from the terrible conditions."

Idan says that after an initial flurry of visits from officials when the camp opened, the complaints of the residents have fallen on deaf ears.

"These families and children are very poor and they didn't have the simplest things, like cold water in this hot summer," Idan says. "There are no schools. The problem is nobody cares about them. All the officials are corrupt. But I still hope that some day, somebody will come and save them."

A Desperate Refuge

Some estimates put the number of widows in Iraq at 1 million — women who have lost their husbands to Iraq's endless succession of wars: Iran, Iraq, the invasion of Kuwait and the recent civil war.

In an attempt to address the problem, Baghdad's provincial council funded this trailer park, but as with many of Iraq's reconstruction projects, the work is shoddy and was left uncompleted.

Still, for many of the women here, this is a last desperate refuge.

Alia Younis Abas, who is pregnant with her third child, shows a visiting reporter around her trailer. It's a small, simple structure — two rooms on either side for sleeping, a bathroom and kitchen in the middle.

She is not a widow; her husband left her because he could not afford to support her and the children. She came to live in the compound with her aunt who lost her husband in the Iran-Iraq war.

Abas is only 16, and already she looks and sounds exhausted by life.

"This is my destiny — my family is poor and I can't depend on them to help me," Abas says. "My husband does not give me a cent, and you know my children need money to buy food and clothes. I depend now on charity. I have no other choice."

Discarded By Their Families

In Iraq, poor widows and divorcees are often discarded by their families, leaving them vulnerable with no way to support themselves. In this camp, some like Alia beg. Others become prostitutes.

The caravans provide roofs over the women's heads, but little else. They are made of metal, and in the hot Iraqi sun they act like ovens.

"It is very hard to live in this trailer especially in the summer with the hot weather," Abas says. "Our skin is blisters from the heat. We do not have our own generator, and we can't pay for power from the central generator."

Back across the camp, Attiyah says the one good thing about being here is that the women can all help each other. They all share the same pain and similar problems.

"I try to help the other widows, because some of them have problems worse than mine," Attiyah says. "I always encourage the widows without work to find something other than begging, or asking help from your brother or your husband's husband family."

As she talks, her son continues to fret. She sings to him again. This time the song is much bleaker and she cannot hold back her own tears.

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