women whose husbands go missing find it difficult to obtain government aid.
By Hind al-Safar and Zaineb Naji in Baghdad (ICR No. 261, 10-Jun-08)
Firdaw al-Baghdadi has not seen her husband in three years. He was abducted in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, and although his family paid a ransom for his release, they never heard from the captors again.
Baghdadi, 38, from Baghdad’s Shia suburb Sadr City, cannot find work and her own relatives are too poor to help out, so she lives with her husband's family in cramped conditions.
“I don't know what to do,” she said. “Tradition prevents women from working, especially women like me.”
Women whose husbands go missing in Iraq receive little financial support and get lost in a welfare system that does not assist the families of kidnap victims, critics said.
While no reliable figures are available, abductions became a widespread – and lucrative – business from late 2003, with families paying tens of thousands of dollars for the release of their loved ones.
According to reports by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the incidence of kidnapping reached 30 to 40 a day as civil conflict broke out in March 2006.
In many cases, kidnap victims have never been released even when the families have paid a ransom.
Wives of the victims are emotionally and financially devastated by the loss, say women's advocates, and their suffering is heightened because often they cannot access benefits intended for Iraq's most vulnerable.
While welfare is available for widows, orphans, the disabled and divorced women, it does not cover women whose husbands have gone missing, unless they can prove in court their husbands were kidnapped or killed, according to Azhar al-Sharbaf, a legal adviser with the women's affairs ministry.
This requirement is intended to prevent fraudulent claims in a country wracked by corruption. However, kidnappings can be difficult to prove.
Layla Kadhim Aziz, director of the Social Care Network, a welfare system through the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said families affected by kidnapping must also fill out forms proving that they need aid.
Welfare benefits in Iraq stand at 75,000 dinar (65 US dollars) a month for individuals or 100,000 dinar (85 dollars) for families with children, Sharbaf said, noting that this allowance “doesn't even cover a household's basic needs”.
The wives of government employees are entitled to up to one year of their husbands' salary if their partners go missing and there is no one else who can support them, said Shatha al-Abusi, a member of parliament who advocates for women's rights.
However, many women do not take advantage of the benefits on offer, as they do not report an abduction to police, for fear of retaliation by the kidnappers. In addition, many Iraqis lost confidence in the police after 2004, when the force was infiltrated by militias. Moreover, as kidnappings are so common, the police spend little time investigating them.
Abusi said that some women whose husbands are abducted become so fearful that they abandon their homes and go and stay with relatives. “Sometimes the woman leaves her house immediately after her husband is abducted because she's afraid of being targeted,” she explained.
Khetam Abdul Karim, a 30-year-old women's advocate and a lawyer specialising in family matters, said Iraqi laws do not provide adequate support for families in kidnapping cases. The only law that deals with the missing dates from 1980, the start of the Iran-Iraq war, she said. That law states that the defence or interior minister must first declare an individual missing and after a four-year lapse, the person is declared dead and family members are then entitled to claim the inheritance.
Sharbaf said the women's affairs ministry had backed a law that would have provided financial support, health care and other aid for women who have no other means of support. The law, which was drafted by parliament's human rights committee, was shelved in May.
The ministries of finance, justice and labour and social affairs all rejected the legislation on the grounds that the government had not allocated funding for the programme and it would overlap with the social care network, said Sharbaf.
Abusi, who is on the parliamentary human rights committee, said it would continue to push for a law that aids the wives of kidnap victims. Aziz also said she would encourage the government to review the benefits system.
Weam Jasim, an activist with the rights group Dawn of the Woman in Baghdad, said that while her organisation has tried to draw attention to the plight of wives of kidnap victims, this has largely been ignored by the authorities. Jasim is not hopeful that the government will act on behalf of women.
“Women's rights are only slogans for politicians,” she said.
Hind al-Safar and Zaineb Naji are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad.