Women for Women International helps Iraqi women rebuild lives

Program uses funds from private donors and government to train women

By Lea Terhune, USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - When a young Iraqi-American woman, Zainab Salbi, began an organization in 1992 to help women in conflict zones recover their lives, she had no idea what was ahead. What she and her new husband saw in the rape camps in war-torn Croatia that same year changed their lives. "It was a turning point," Salbi told USINFO. "That's when we decided we were going to dedicate our lives to this."

Today, Women for Women International works in: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sudan. It also has partnership programs in Lebanon and Colombia. The effectiveness of WFWI's personal, woman-to-woman outreach in the most politically difficult regions of the world won it the 2006 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The award is sponsored by the foundation established by the late hotel magnate Conrad N. Hilton.

Zainab Salbi plans to use the $1.5 million prize to launch a campaign to build permanent "opportunity centers" in WFWI's target regions, safe havens where a woman "can access economic, political and social opportunities in her community," Salbi said.

"For someone to stand on their feet they need to be able to earn income, to vote, and participate in decision making within the household and the community," Salbi said. "The program is designed to address all of these aspects." WFWI operates "in a simple and straightforward way where at the end of the day they see results and tangible deliveries." Vocational and political training are the core of the program.

Individual sponsors are connected personally to those they sponsor. Often, they exchange letters. "What is unique about Women for Women is that it continues in that tradition of direct assistance," WFWI program director Pat Morris told USINFO. Funding also comes from organizational donors and governments, including the U.S. State Department.

"Iraq is the most dangerous place that we work in," Salbi said. "Part of what enables us to stay in countries is the fact that we only have local staff." She praised their dedication. They refuse to leave, saying if they do "those who are trying to make our lives miserable will win. ... This is how we're fighting back."

Salbi would like to see more money spent "on delivering services and infrastructure to stabilize people's lives." Food, jobs, schools and health care top her list.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supports similar programs in Iraq. To date, $5 billion has gone into the entire USAID mission in Iraq, and programs to improve life have high priority. A USAID official on the Iraq desk told USINFO, "Electricity and fuel have been a problem and obviously, the Number 1 problem is security."

The 25 WFWI staffers in Iraq do their work quietly because of the volatile security situation. Extremist militant groups mark progressive, educated women active in rebuilding Iraq for assassination.

"Umm Mohammed" (not her real name) heads the WFWI Iraq chapter, managing programs mostly in the south. Women learn about "health, economics and politics," she told USINFO. "Some of the women have limited education, so they need to understand the information in the simplest way, and this is what we provide to them," she said.

Town markets are outlets for the women's products: crafts, jewelry, textiles, tailoring, carpentry or upholstery. If they own a cow, they can sell milk and dairy products. "We try to do an assessment of the market, what is the demand of the market," Morris said.

Umm Mohammed tells of an unskilled woman who learned to be a beautician and developed a clientele among family and neighbors. Now she plans to open a shop in her house.

Another traumatized woman refused to speak. Her mother brought her to the WFWI program, where at first she was silent, but after the trainer's attempts to motivate her to participate, "she changed and started to share her ideas," Umm Mohammed said.

A third woman, with no experience and limited education, was determined to learn photography and computer use. She did, and opened a photographic shop in her remote village, an area where men are forbidden to photograph girls or groups of women in wedding parties.

There are successes in Iraq, and women want more training, from what Salbi saw at a recent focus group of 140 women in Iraq. She said WFWI is understaffed and underfunded, compared to the need. Even so, Salbi said, "There are stories of hope in the country... [H]ope is a very important notion in times of crisis. We have to make sure to hold onto it, transform it into action."

USAID also sees progress in the grassroots programs it funds. "We all know the security situation has gotten worse, but I do think our programs have been able ... to show tremendous results," a USAID spokeswoman said. A USAID-funded program in Basra, Iraq, run by Save the Children is one example. Intesar Al Sar'aji, head of the Basra Women's Association and a former politician, told USINFO that such programs that work "in direct contact with the community" are valuable. "They respond to our needs, they build new schools, playfields and buildings for local women's [nongovernmental organizations]," she said.

Helping families earn complements community-action programs, according to Salbi. "People measure success on the basis of economic realities," she said. Elections, learning about rights and governance, Salbi said, "If combined with economic development, then it actually does create changes."

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