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 Iraq's Hidden Treasure
 Raja Habib Khuzai and Songul Chapouk, Iraq
 December 2, 2003
December 3, 2003 Iraq's Hidden Treasure Raja Habib Khuzai and Songul Chapouk, Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq —Iraq has many capable women ready to lead the country toward democracy. Yet women are severely underrepresented in the leadership established for the transition. As plans for a new governing structure are developed, the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority should ensure women their rightful place at the decision-making table.

Many Iraqi women are well-educated —doctors, lawyers and engineers who are already leaders in their communities. And regardless of education, women in Iraq are often heads of households who have kept their families and their country moving despite decades of war and severe abuse under the Saddam Hussein regime.

Yet we two are the only women on the 25-member Governing Council. (A third, Akila al-Hashimi, was assassinated in September and her seat has not been filled.) Nisrin Barwari, the minister of public works, is the only woman among the government agency heads named in September. Among thousands of judges throughout Iraq fewer than 15 are women, and some are facing opposition to their appointments to the bench on the basis of gender. At the district and local level, especially in areas where officials have been chosen in general elections, the situation is a bit better: the Baghdad City Advisory Council has 6 women among 37 members.

As part of a delegation of female Iraqi professionals who met with President Bush and his advisers last month, we pointed out approaches used around the world to ensure that women's voices are heard. The best-known successes of women's inclusion come from the Nordic countries: women constitute nearly 40 percent of Parliaments in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, where parties have created their own quota systems to ensure a diversity of nominees. But there are lesser-known models: Argentina has 30 percent quota for women candidates in national elections; India requires that one-third of seats in local municipal bodies be reserved for women; Uganda reserves one seat in each of its parliamentary districts for women. One of the more innovative systems for women's inclusion has emerged from the Rwanda civil war—the country has set aside nearly one-third of the 80 seats in its lower house of Parliament for women, who are elected in a separate women-only election. Women now make up 49 percent of the Rwandan Parliament, the highest percentage in the world.

How can these sorts of innovations be adapted for Iraq? The United States could work with us to ensure that the Governing Council sets aside slots for women in all levels of government and in the constitutional drafting process in proportion to their percentage of the population; makes good on its previous pledge to appoint at least five women as deputy ministers of government agencies; increases the number of women on the Governing Council and its successor provisional government and ensures that these women have a leadership role in building a new government and appointing senior government officials; guarantees equal rights and opportunities for women in the constitution and all related laws; and creates a gender advisory council that reports to the head of state and has the authority and responsibility to make sure that women's concerns are represented.

The women of Iraq are ready, willing and able to lead. Only by making certain that they are allowed to participate can the United States and Iraqi Governing Council plant seeds of inclusion that will foster security, democracy and stability.

Raja Habib Khuzai and Songul Chapouk are members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

From The New York Times, December 3, 2003. © 2003 The New York Times