Many of the one million women who head Iraqi households struggle to pay basic living expenses in a traditionally male role while coping with the loss of a husband, the Red Cross said on Wednesday.
Magne Barth, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Baghdad, told a news conference in the Iraqi capital that there are around one million female-headed households in Iraq, according to official figures.
"These are widows, wives of missing and detainees, or divorcees, who are alone in charge of their family. Many had to cope with the traumatic death of their husband," he said. "All of them have in common to struggle to pay basic living costs."
"Iraq is a patriarchal society, where families are headed by men," Barth said. "Many women are not prepared to fill that role, and it is culturally and socially difficult for them to do so."
An ICRC survey of more than 100 "vulnerable women heading households" conducted between September and December 2010 found "that these women are living in precarious situations, in poor living conditions, with poor diets," Barth said.
"They rely on their relatives, neighbours, communities and charities to cope with their needs. Seventy percent of them spend more than they earn and have to borrow money, sell their assets and cut on crucial spending like education and health," Barth said.
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Mariam, a 46-year-old displaced widow in the central province of Diyala, has been living in a former school with her seven children since 2008, in a room with a door that does not close and windows with no glass, according to an ICRC report based on the survey.
"I've received two eviction orders, but I have nowhere else to go," Mariam was quoted in the report as saying, adding that "I have no money to either repair the door or install windows."
Amina, a 39-year-old whose husband was killed and who was forced to flee her home in Mosul in north Iraq just days later due to threats, eventually settled with her three children at her brother-in-law's home, but wants a house of her own, the report said.
"What I want is a house of my own, and the chance to earn money on my own. I don't want to depend on my husband's relatives, who are already poor," she said.
Many of the women surveyed by the ICRC had not worked before or had limited education and work experience, and faced a labour market that offered few opportunities for women, Barth said.
"What these women need is comprehensive state support," he said, adding that the ICRC has since 2009 helped almost 1,000 women to cover the costs of travelling to register for aid under Iraq's welfare allowance system.
During 2011 and 2012, the ICRC will provide about 6,000 women with between 40,000 and 130,000 Iraqi dinars ($34 to $111) per month for six months, "to give them some relief until they are included into the social allowance system," he said.
Marta Pawlak, the head of the ICRC Iraq Women and War Project, said it can take between three and five months for women to gather the necessary documents, register and begin receiving aid from the Iraqi government.