‘Social crisis’ expected after war
By Kim Gamel and Bushra Juhi
BAGHDAD — The car exploded near a popular ice cream parlor, sending flames and shrapnel through the busy square and killing 17 people.
It was another deadly explosion quickly forgotten by the outside world. But Aug. 1, 2007, changed the life of 28-year-old Maysa Sharif. It was the day she became one of nearly a million Iraqi women who have lost husbands as the country has suffered through three wars and Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime.
Such vast numbers of widows would tax any society, and all the more Iraq’s. With virtually no safety net and few job opportunities, most widows have little choice but to move in with their extended families and depend on their largesse.
Sharif was five months pregnant and preparing breakfast for her children when the blast shook their house in central Baghdad. She ran to the scene where her 39-year-old husband, Hussein Abdul-Hassan, ran a cigarette kiosk, and saw him on the ground. "Shrapnel hit his body and his head was cracked open. His eyes and mouth also were open," she said.
"I wanted to close them," she said, but police dragged her away, fearing a second explosion.
And her nightmare continued. Her 7-year-old son Saif had gone to work with his dad, and she couldn’t find him. Only as her husband was being taken to the holy city of Najaf to be buried did she learn her son had died in the hospital.
"The funeral convoy turned around and put Saif’s body in the same coffin," she said. "They refused to let me see my son or go to Najaf because I was pregnant. I could not believe that he was dead until I saw the death certificate."
Sharif has three other children — 10-year-old Ali, 2-year-old Tabarak and infant Abdullah, whose name was chosen by his father the night before he was killed. They now live in one room set aside for them in her brother-in-law’s compound in central Baghdad.
With the government’s attention focused on political crises and the U.S.-led war now entering its sixth year, advocates say the plight of women like Sharif is being ignored.
Women’s Affairs Minister Nirmeen Othman warns it could boil up into a peacetime "social crisis."
A family health survey provided by lawmaker Samira al-Moussawi, who champions the widows, counted 738,240 widows ranging in age from 15 to 80 as of January 2007, and dating back to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The figure included those whose husbands died of natural causes and a further breakdown was not available.
Othman estimated the number at closer to 1.3 million.
The problem also threatens the next generation.
A whole new primary school for 640 orphans has opened in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, but headmistress Asma Karim says many pupils are failing for lack of support at home.
"Those who are left to care for these children are normally concerned about their survival more than their education," she said.
Al-Moussawi, a geologist-turned-politician, says she has been overwhelmed by petitions for help, including 448 recently delivered to her office in a plastic bag from the predominantly Shiite southern city of Diwaniyah.
"There isn’t any strategy, any clear strategy to deal with this social issue — not for women, not for children," she said.