People

Women for Women is helping rebuild Iraqi women’s lives with hope

Stylist’s charity partner, Women for Women International, helps women in war-torn areas rebuild their lives. And one of their initiatives is offering a lifeline that’s just as powerful as aid: hope 

They’ve been forced to flee their homes, they’ve witnessed the brutal killing of their husbands and male relatives, and they have endured rape, torture and abduction by Isis fighters. But for the women trapped in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), where more than one million displaced Iraqis now find themselves, their plight is far from over.

Many of these women have been displaced for months or years, and face challenges that threaten their basic security, economic wellbeing and survival. They are also targets of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in their homes, refugee camps and host communities.

Recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees suggest there are also around 250,000 Syrian refugees living in Iraq, having fled their country’s abominable nine-year civil war, which, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has seen nearly 115,000 civilian lives lost and is widely recognised as the second deadliest conflict of the 21st century.

It’s a situation that Women for Women International is trying to help. In 2017, the charity, which helps women who have been through wars rebuild their lives, began running a year-long training programme for the women affected. Held at a permanent training centre in Iraq, the course teaches key practical skills that enable women to get into the workplace and provide for their families and communities. But it’s not just in the KRI that they are offering support. The charity operates similar schemes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Nigeria and Rwanda, among others, and has helped more than half a million women since 1993.

Now, Women for Women International has become Stylist’s official charity partner, and over the coming months we’ll be telling you more about their work – and how you can get involved and support our global sisters.

BUILDING A COMMUNITY

For Shan, 30, economic empowerment manager for the charity, her work came naturally. She grew up with her parents, brother and sister in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the KRI where the harsh remnants of war were everywhere. “It was such a scary time and although things were calming down, I remember lots of stories of chemical bombings, and my family were still haunted by what they had been through,” she says. “My mother was a visionary and she knew having a job would pay off. But she had to fight society and our relatives in order to get one.”

When Shan was a teenager, her mother would also bring home magazines featuring tragic stories of women in their country being burned or taking their life. “Reading them made me realise that I didn’t own myself; someone else owned me,” she recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to do something to help these women as soon as I could, but of course I couldn’t do it by myself. Fortunately, as I got older I had the support of my strong mother; she was always behind me, defending me and fighting for my rights – just as she had done with hers. She showed me how important it is to ensure other women in the community are strong mothers, so they can be allies to their daughters, too.”

Today, Shan is channelling that first-hand experience and support from her mother into Women for Women International. “I purposely talk to the women in our programme about my story so they don’t think I’m just some outsider who can’t relate. I tell them similar things I have seen, or what the people I love have been through. It’s a way of helping them see that getting into work is not impossible.”

The courses Shan runs aim to give women the skills to be in control of their finances and, subsequently, their lives. “I always begin by talking about discrimination between genders in the family – and how it happens,” she says, adding that most of the communities she and her team work with are conservative. The women wear traditional hijabs, covering their hair and often their faces, meaning eye contact has become a strong, safe and empowering communication tool between the participants and teachers.

“I’ve seen so many teary eyes behind the women’s hijabs when they realise they’ve been discriminated against, or their rights have been violated as a child, teenager, sister, mother. Lots of them tell me they thought it was ‘normal’ if a father or uncle forced them to drop out of school but their brother didn’t have to. It means there are multiple generations of women who have grown up unable to read or write, or do basic arithmetic.” Indeed, figures from the charity reveal that, in Iraq, 54% of the programme’s graduates had no previous formal education and 50% couldn’t read or write without difficulty.

The programme is specifically designed to combat this, equipping women with the knowledge and tools to sustain an income – including business skills, numeracy training and market-based vocational training. It works like this: a woman enrols on the year-long course which involves 25 classes, each receiving $10 a month as a training stipend, and works as part of a team to save, loan and repay money as they go about setting up their businesses. “We’ve seen people start baking, hairdressing and make-up businesses, as well as ones sewing traditional Kurdish clothing, such as shirts and maxi-dresses. They tell me they love it because it’s an empowering opportunity to make money, and they can do it from their homes,” says Shan.

A BRIGHTER FUTURE

But getting women on board in the first place is still a challenge. “We have a team of six people going through the neighbourhood knocking on doors, giving out brochures and telling as many women as we can about the economic, social and vocational training we can offer them,” says Shan. “But I’d say 98% have to talk to their husbands when they get home before saying yes – and in lots of situations, their husbands will say no. We’ve also been called troublemakers and told that we’re making women speak back to the men or raise their voices at them.”

It’s a distressing example of how, although the KRI is currently safe from active conflict, the real obstacle these women face comes from society – not the outside danger of an explosion or protest. “It’s sad when a woman has the potential to start her own business, but her brother or husband won’t allow her to do so,” says Shan. “Most of the participants from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, are Muslim and have never had the chance to be educated. 

While in the district of Shekhan – a long-disputed area between the Kurdistan region and Iraq – the security situation is not always stable, but Muslims, Yezidis and Christians live there and we have a cohort of 350 women signed up to the programme,” she adds. “The remnants of war I see are through the people in Shekhan and their emotional scars.”

But this is also where Women for Women International’s work shines most. Among the women Shan has worked with is Farida, a refugee living in northern Iraq. “The programme has allowed me to leave our house, educate myself and make new friends,” she says. “I’m motivated to learn English as much as I can so if I ever get the opportunity to travel, I will know the world language. The centre has changed my life.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

You can sign up to sponsor a woman survivor of war through Women for Women International’s year-long programme for £22 per month, or you can make a regular donation for a smaller amount. As a sponsor, you are matched with a ‘sister’ (a woman enrolling in the programme) and will receive a welcome pack, a photo (if she is happy to provide one) and regular updates throughout the year. You can also write her messages of support, and you will receive letters from her, too. If you sign up before International Women’s Day (8 March), you will also receive a free tote bag.

Find out more at womenforwomen.org.uk/tote 

Image: Getty Images