AMMAN, 11 December 2006 - Iraqi women need urgent action to protect and promote their rights, UNICEF’s Iraq Office said today. The call follows the launch of a global UNICEF report saying that equal rights for women is the key to stronger societies.
The State of the World’s Children 2007, released on UNICEF’s 60th anniversary, says that eliminating gender discrimination and empowering women will yield a “double dividend” - profoundly impacting the lives of the world’s women and boosting the survival and well-being of children. It says that despite progress for women in recent decades, millions of girls and women are still overshadowed by discrimination, disempowerment and poverty.
Iraq is a society that has traditionally celebrated and empowered women. But today’s Iraqi women and girls are living in uniquely challenging times. Their rights in the home, school, workplace and political sphere are under threat.
“Women should be equal partners in the future of Iraq, but their rights risk slipping away without positive action to protect them,” said UNICEF Representative for Iraq, Roger Wright. “Now more than ever, equal participation for women is fundamental to Iraq’s recovery.”
Wright said that violence and insecurity in parts of Iraq are curtailing women’s freedoms, while poverty limits their access to basic services such as health care. He stressed that if women are healthy, educated and equal partners in decision-making, children are more likely to thrive and communities prosper.
UNICEF is calling for renewed commitment to protect women’s status in Iraq, backed up by strong action to tackle the five most critical issues facing Iraq’s women and girls:
1 - A lifeline for female-headed households: Approximately 11 per cent of Iraqi households are headed by a woman, numbers are on the rise as a result of the ongoing violence. Every day dozens of women are widowed, and the number of families struggling to cope without a wage-earner is starting to overwhelm local social services. Paid work for women is scarce (only 14 per cent of women between 16 and 60 years old currently employed, as opposed to 68 per cent of men, according to a 2006 World Food Programme survey), and leaving home to find work puts women and children at risk. Pushed to desperation, many women are resorting to charity organisations to care for themselves and their children.
2 - Accelerating learning for girls: Iraq has traditionally had an excellent record on education for both girls and boys. But many girls are now struggling to get to school in an increasingly violent and repressive climate. With threats to girls attending school on the increase, more and more families are being forced to choose between education and safety for their daughters. A 2003/4 national survey indicated that of 600,000 children out of school, 74 per cent were girls. Girls’ attendance rates are falling fastest in the central Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Baghdad and Diyala. The poorer south still has Iraq’s lowest girl’s education rates.
3 - Preserving the health of mothers: maternal mortality rates have risen dramatically in the last fifteen years. In 1989, 117 Iraqi mothers out of 100,000 died during pregnancy or childbirth. Today rates are between 193 and 290 per 100,000 according to recent surveys – compared to 41 per 100,000 in neighbouring Jordan. Poverty and a weakening of local health networks are largely responsible for many Iraqi women entering pregnancy without adequate nourishment or medical support.
4 - Protecting girls from violence: too many Iraqi women and girls have their lives destroyed in the very communities that should protect them. So-called “honor killings” and “convenience marriages” (short term unions that can be dissolved within days) are still occurring inside Iraq - often with impunity. Early marriage rates also remain relatively high. A 2004 national survey supported by UNICEF found that 60 per cent of married women aged 15-24 were married before 18 years of age. A staggering 19 per cent of these young marriages took place before the girls were 15.
5 - More female voices in government: women’s representation in Iraq’s government is still disproportionately low. Among 37 newly appointed ministers only four are women. And only 25 per cent of Iraq’s parliamentarians are women.
“Women must be involved in all key decisions about the future of our country and our children,” said Iraq Minister for Women’s Affairs Ms. Fatin Abdul Rahman Mahmoud. “This is the only route towards a fair society where all citizens can flourish.”
The vitality of the newly-formed Iraq Ministry of Women’s Affairs is just one example of the positive steps being taken by the Iraqi government to take action on behalf of women as a national priority. Working with UNICEF, other UN Agencies and the broader development community, the government has made promising strides to address the needs of women and children.
The Accelerated Learning Programme supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education is currently ensuring that girls who have missed out on school can catch up with the curriculum and sit their exams. And a national programme to fortify wheat flour with iron and folic acid is helping to nourish women and prevent anaemia – a leading cause of maternal deaths.
But more needs to be done. In the year ahead, UNICEF will assist the Iraqi government to take three key steps for women: 1. Increase national resources directed to improved services for women and children; 2. Introduce legislation to protect women’s basic legal and social rights; and 3. Promote women’s full participation in local and national decision-making.
“Women of Iraq cannot wait for more stable times to receive the support they need,” said Roger Wright. “We must act now to empower them towards realizing a brighter future for the nation as a whole.”
About UNICEF For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 156 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.
For more information please contact: Claire Hajaj, Communication Officer, UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman, Tel: +962 6 551 5921/ +962 7969 26190 (mobile), email@example.com
The full text of State of the World’s Children 2007 can be accessed at www.unicef.org/sowc07. Footage is also available on request