An estimated two million women are primary breadwinners in Iraq doing odd jobs from sewing clothes to selling vegetables in an effort to support their families. Image Credit: Reuters

Baghdad: Halima Dakhil lost her husband in the sectarian slaughter that engulfed Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and now spends her days tearful and scared, knowing her $250 (Dh917.50) monthly wage won't pay the rent and feed five children.

One of an estimated 2 million women who are primary breadwinners in Iraq, Halima is but one face of the humanitarian crisis left behind as US forces withdraw from Iraq nearly nine years after toppling dictator Saddam Hussain.

Rent takes $210 of her monthly earning as a cleaner in a medical clinic. She depends mainly on the kindness of neighbours and other donors to feed her family.

"When my husband was killed in 2006, my youngest child, Ridha, was only a toddler," said Halima, wiping away her tears with her abaya, as Ridha stood by her side.

"I took on the role of both mother and father. I support them and pay the rent. The rent is destroying me."

Halima said militants beheaded her husband, along with his brother and nephew, as they travelled to sell a car and buy another in Diyala province, a centre of ethnic and sectarian strife east of Baghdad.

In a cruel irony, Halima's spouse, a Sunni, was killed by Sunnis who thought he was a Shiite because his ID badge was issued in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, she said.

Halima, herself a Shiite, was displaced shortly after her husband's death from their Sunni area in northern Baghdad to Sadr City, with no money, no furniture and no family support.

As Iraq emerges from nearly nine years of what many here think of as an occupation by US forces, and the decades of Saddam's reign before, it faces an uphill battle to help the poor, the wounded, the widowed and others scarred by war.

"I wish the war never happened and my husband was still alive. What is his fault? What is the fault of the innocent people?" said Halima, who is raising four boys and a girl.


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 killed more than 100,000 Iraqis, by some estimates.

Minister of Women's Affairs Ibtihal Gasid Al Zaidi estimates there may be 2 million women breadwinners in Iraq, most of them widows of the 2003 US-led invasion and the sectarian conflict that followed, the first Gulf war or the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

The humanitarian group Relief International estimates there may be 1.5 million widows, nearly 10 per cent of the female population. The International Committee of the Red Cross said there are more than 1 million women leading households in Iraq.

"The ICRC sees women-headed households as among the most vulnerable in Iraq today," the group said. Ibtihal said 23 per cent of oil-rich Iraq's estimated 30 million people, around 7 million, live under the poverty line and more than half are women.

Many widows struggle with the realities of their new lives; raising children alone, with little money or family support.

"The woman's suffering is huge in these difficult circumstances because she is the father, the mother, the care-giver and the breadwinner," Ibtihal said. "She is taking huge responsibility, inside and outside the home. We are trying to help her as much as we can."

During Saddam's reign, widows were paid a monthly benefit and were 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 victims of war and their relatives, and a state-run compensation committee to help those hurt by militant attacks began its work in July.

Standard compensation includes five million Iraqi dinars ($4,275) for a government worker who is killed and 3.75 million dinars ($3,200) for non-government worker, along with land and a monthly pension, in addition to social security benefits.

So far the committee has given out 55 billion dinars ($47 million). Land has been distributed in some provinces but not in Baghdad yet, said Hazem Al Haidari, the head of the committee.

A widow's monthly social security is 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($85). Each child receives 15,000 dinars ($13).

"I agree it is little. But there is a real plan to increase these benefits," Ibtihal said.

Iraqi women say registering for government pensions is a bureaucratic nightmare due to corrupt workers who demand money to complete the paperwork. One divorcee said she spent almost a year registering and when she was about to finish the process the pension office told her that her file had been lost. She gave up.

Reducing poverty

The government has allocated $1.2 billion a year to a plan to reduce the poverty level to 16 per cent by 2014, said Hassan Al Zubaidi, a professor at Kufa University in Najaf and one of the plan's authors.

The plan sets the poverty line at 77,000 dinars ($66) a month; a line to which too many Iraqis are dangerously close.

"Most of [the people] are close to the 77,000 dinars, which means with any security and economic crisis, many people will be under the poverty line," Zubaidi said.

The 75-square-metre home where Halima is raising her five children has no glass in the windows. A broken air cooler sits in the front yard.

"My children went to bed without dinner the other night," she said.

  • $250: the monthly wage for an Iraqi widow
  • 1.5m: estimated number of widows in Iraq
  • 23%: of Iraqis live below the poverty line