Crisis - Open Forum > Next Story

 An Interview with Lesley Abdela
 Janice Duddy, International
 November 28, 2003

Association for Women in Development: Could you briefly tell me about your work in Iraq.

Lesley Adela: I was working with an American group called RTI [Research Triangle Institute], based in North Carolina. They have been working on issues of local government in Iraq. They recruited me to work on civil society. I was working with human rights groups and womenís groups. I was based in South Central Province, which is about an hour-and-a-half south of Baghdad, in the towns of Hilla, Kerbala (a religious centre of the Shiites), and Diwania.

AWID: From your experience, how does the average Iraqi feel about the occupation?

LA: The region I was in is the heartland of the Shia, the people that rose up against Saddam in 1991. They thought that if they rose up America and others would support them but they didnít. They paid a very high price. Around the town of Hilla, the old Babylon of history, there have been 80 mass graves already found. Hundreds and thousands of people in that region were killed in reprisals and tortured.

It is very hard for me to say what the average Iraqi feels. Although I have met with about 300 people, mainly women and [people from] human rights groups, because of the security situation we could not go to shops, restaurants, or other public places. I have never worked in those conditions before. Usually, when I am working in another country I end up going home to peopleís houses or we end up going out for coffee together. This allows people to become really relaxed and to chat. During this experience we were not in this situation. Even though it was not as bad in the area where we were compared to Baghdad, it was very difficult to assess what people really felt. We didnít discuss it to be honest. Because of security reasons I didnít feel that I got to know anyone well enough for him or her to speak openly with me.

Let me explain our security situation. I canít say that we were ever directly fired at. There was quite a bit of shooting in the evenings but it was quite often weddings; they have three-day weddings where they shoot guns off. There were also criminal-on-criminal shootings and an occasional explosion, for instance outside the police station. We had to have bodyguards wherever we went. It was hard for me to tell if the group we were working with was being over-cautious or if in fact they were correct and it was truly dangerous.

What you are seeing on the television is right in terms of security, but what you are not seeing is what is happening on the ground. For instance, civilians are repairing sewage and setting up womenís centres. Things are happening faster in Iraq than in Kosovo because you donít have to coordinate with many other groups. You can just get things done faster on a practical level.

AWID: Do you feel that womenís lives have improved or gotten worse since the occupation?

LA: When you have a dangerous situation, it makes if very difficult for women to move around. Also, there is a lot of intimidation from the Islamic fascist and fundamentalist groups. It was reported to me that if women do not wear their headscarves they are getting leaned on.

In terms of rights, when you have high unemployment (currently in Iraq there is 80 percent unemployment) and other stresses, it has got to be bad for women. Life is very hard for everybody and when it is hard for everybody you can be sure that women are going to be taking the brunt of it. If you are a widow or a divorced woman, it is extremely hard because it is not socially acceptable for you to go out and about or go to work without somebody escorting you.

What I found very interesting was that the women we were working with, who were a mixture of incredibly religious women in black full veils and others who were in modern dress, were all focused on getting women represented on any committee deciding on the constitution, in parliament, or in any situation where womenís rights in the constitution could be promoted. The first thing that they said to me, before I said anything, was we want to get women on the committee deciding on the constitution because we want womenís equal rights enshrined in the constitution. We have been oppressed long enough. Also Iraqi women want to have at least 35-40 percent women in any parliament that is selected.

AWID: What is the state of the NGO sector in Iraq, particularly womenís NGOs?

LA: Under Saddam there were no NGOs. There have always been womenís organizations; there were big ones before Saddam and under Saddam, but they were very much part of the system. The ones that are starting now are working outside of that system. It is important to understand that there is still no system in place for registering NGOs in Iraq.

In terms of NGO work, people have been incredibly cut off. To give you an example, I was working with a human rights organization in Hilla, which consisted of about 30 lawyers (mostly men but women as well). A computer centre had just opened in their building. The second or third day I was working with them I asked, "Which international human right groups are you in touch with: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or International Crisis Group?" and they said, " With who?" They had had no contact with an international organization. We went into the computer room and sent an email making contact with international organizations and now they are in touch with the rest of the world. Under the Baathists nobody was allowed to use email except good party members and then they were monitored.

I have worked in many countries where people have been cut off but not as cut off as this from information. And yet, there are many well-educated people. That is another thing that doesnít come through on Western news.

AWID: What are the major issues facing womenís NGOs and what skill and resources are needed to tackle these issues?

LA: Surviving financially is a big one. Investment, getting them up and running as a business, also making them viable careers and professions is another important aspect. The Internet and the English language are going to be things that are very much needed. I am seeing a rich-poor divide opening up in many countries between those people that can use email and the Internet and can speak English and those that canít. Obviously, the agricultural side of things [is crucial] because besides oil Iraq is a big agricultural producer. It keeps coming back to what we are seeing on TV, you have got to get security right. If it is not safe to go around, it doesnít matter what skills you have got. For women it is more difficult to go out and about. It really is a safety issue.

Medicines and hospitals are needed. But you have a strange situation. Americans were trying to do what people suggested, which was to hand over money and decision-making power to the Iraqis. They handed over millions of dollars in July to the Ministry of Health and Education so that the Iraqis could make their own decisions. They were encouraging them to do it at local levels. But when I left in October, only between 10-15 percent of that money had been spent. This is because people at the local level are still frightened to make a decision without the say-so of Baghdad, in case the Baathists come back. Also, in Baghdad there is a Secretary General of the Accountancy Department who is a big Baathist and who has stopped the supply of money (I am not sure why he is still there). You have these sorts of problems.

AWID: Have you seen any parallels in the development of the NGO sector in Iraq and in Kosovo, where you have also worked?

LA: Kosovo is a very different situation. The people in Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians, had run an alternative society for 10 years under Milosevic. They had a tradition there of doing their own thing. I have not found this situation in any other communist country. They are quite used to running their own schools and alternative health system. They even paid a 3 percent voluntary tax to support their own alternative system. Much of that was NGOs running a whole society. When it came to actually registering NGOs what I call service-provider NGOs were there and ready to go. What was new in Kosovo is the idea of NGOs as agents and campaigners of change. We were training NGO leaders from environmental groups, youth groups, womenís groups, and human rights groups on how to campaign, how you can persuade your politicians and UN representatives to bring in legislation you want and that the citizens need and how to brief them on issues. In Iraq, that is absolutely unheard of because you never questioned authority.

In terms of NGOs it is still too early [to tell]. They are beginning, womenís groups, human rights groups, and also environmental groups. Anything that can be done to encourage this is really positive. In a country like Iraq with many different sectors and ethnic and tribal groups (e.g. Kurds, Shiites) civil society is going to be so important.

AWID: In your opinion, what needs to happen to develop a strong NGO sector in Iraq?

LA: What would be very useful, is that the NGO people themselves need to spend 2-3 months of structured time with NGOs in places like Canada, the US, the UK, and Europe. Then they can go back and work in partnership with NGOs in other countries. We have all networked and learned from each other. What is also needed is to have the contact. Many Iraqis asked for more contact with similar groups in other countries, on email, the Internet, exchange visits, conferences. They are very thirsty for this. Any direct contact that Iraqi groups could make with groups outside of the country would be very valuable.

Lesley Abdula directs Shevolution, an organization working to develop systems, services and media for women and men to work together as equals in work, life, and politics. She was recently in Iraq, helping to develop civil society and NGO sectors, especially with Iraqi womenís organizations.

AWID is an international membership organization committed to gender equality and just sustainable development.

From the AWID Resource Net Friday File, issue 154, November 28, 2003.