By Hussam al-Saray in Baghdad (ICR No. 317, 24-Dec-09)
After her husband was killed in a car bombing near Baghdad in 2005, 45-year-old Um Hasan supported her five children by collecting empty aluminium cans and selling them to factories.
Today, Um Hasan is being trained as a seamstress at the Baghdad-based Women's Support Centre and receives a government stipend to help her look after her family.
"I lost hope of ever finding a job, even as a cleaner, so I came to the centre to get a job in the future," she said.
But Um Hasan may face a struggle. Activists and government experts say women's unemployment is impoverishing hundreds of thousands of families in Iraq.
"The situation for women in Iraq is going from bad to worse," said Alaa al-Jibouri, coordinator of the Iraqi Media Network to Combat Violence Against Women and Children.
There are no hard statistics on the number of unemployed women in Iraq, but experts warn that the problem is severe. The United Nations reported in March 2009 that women comprise only 17 per cent of Iraq's workforce, and that one in ten households are headed by women - more than 80 per cent of whom were widows.
The UN stressed that illiteracy was a major factor in women's poor participation in the workforce, with 24 per cent of women and girls above the age of ten unable to read or write.
The Iraqi government has registered 270,000 women for welfare benefits, with monthly stipends of 50-100 US dollars, but these figures are even disputed within the government.
"We believe that the number of unemployed women might be higher than that," said Bushra al-Hilaly, spokeswoman for the government's Women's Social Affairs, WSA, department.
"We are trying, with the government, to determine the exact number of unemployed women, but it is slow because we don't have an up-to-date census," she added.
Hilaly said that the WSA, created in 2008 within the labour and social affairs ministry, was an attempt to guarantee the rights of women.
"We are establishing new case files for widows, divorced women and the wives of missing soldiers," she said. "It will be expanded to include all unsupported women and orphans."
The WSA has a huge task ahead in assisting unemployed women, experts and international agencies say. As part of International Women's Day in March, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, David Shearer, announced that "a major UN priority for 2009 is to improve conditions for women and girls who have yet to feel more than the full benefits of Iraq's recovery".
The UN also announced that it is partnering with local and international organisations to implement more than 30 programmes to improve women's lives across every governorate of Iraq.
Jibouri says it is common for girls to abandon school at a young age to help their families or make way for male siblings to pursue education.
Women are being forced to beg on the streets and collect rubbish for recycling. Some settle for low-paying jobs in agriculture and factories, where they make as little as 35,000 dinars (30 dollars) per week, according to Jibouri's research.
Jibouri argues that the WSA should provide unemployed women with job skills along with the monthly subsistence funds.
Longtime women's rights activist Hanna Edward says her research also indicates that unemployment has risen.
"It is also noticeable that the percentage of women working in the countryside is higher than in cities .... where job opportunities for women are so scarce," she said.
She also said foreign workers, brought in from south and south-east Asia, are working in many service jobs that might otherwise go to Iraqi women.
Some NGOs are attempting to address the problem.
The government-backed Women's Support Centre in Baghdad trains unemployed women - mostly widows - in a range of occupational skills. Supervisor Salma Jabo says that the volunteer-run NGO has classes every other day and that 1,750 women have already graduated.
"We help women who don't have jobs, and usually they don't have hope. We try to send the message that a woman should support herself. This is the only way to support her children and contribute to society in the process," Jabo said.
Hussam al-Saray is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.