Despite compounding challenges, women in Iraq play vital roles in the country’s COVID-19 response

Date: Monday, July 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing Iraq, but it is not the only one. In addition to fighting the deadly virus, the country has been grappling with popular protests in several regions, a challenging reconstruction process for large parts of the country recently liberated from terrorist groups, and dwindling state revenues from oil, which experienced a sharp fall in price as a repercussion of the pandemic.

Furthermore, Iraq’s health sector lacks resources. The sector’s budget, just 2.5 per cent of the USD 106.5 billion state budget (2019), represents a small fraction of spending compared to neighboring countries in the Middle East. Underfunding of the sector has led to a shortage of hospitals, medical equipment, and supplies, as well as specialized doctors and medical staff.

Combined, these challenges have placed onerous demands on front-line workers in Iraq. Women workers in particular are shouldering a disproportionate burden, faced with additional responsibilities in their households and communities.

“Iraqi women have shown a great deal of resilience in the various sectors in which they work,” said Dina Zorba, UN Women Representative for Iraq and Yemen. “UN Women is in close cooperation with partners to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on women and to ensure that women are able to carry out their roles in service of their communities and country.”

Zorba also highlighted that, as in many parts of the world, measures to reduce the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns and curfews, have exacerbated pre-existing inequalities for many women; the country has seen a rise in cases of domestic and gender-based violence since the onset of the pandemic.

“UN Women, alongside its partners, is focusing its attention on fighting domestic and gender-based violence and minimizing repercussions of the situation on women, particularly those most in need of help,” says Zorba.

Despite the unprecedented challenges, Iraqi women are playing vital roles in the country’s COVID-19 response, serving as leaders, health and social workers, and responders to domestic and gender-based violence.

Here are five Iraqi women’s stories of how the coronavirus crisis has impacted their lives.

Navigating the pressures of work and home as an essential health worker

Mariam Taha, a lab worker at the Central Public Health Laboratory in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Mariam Taha.
Mariam Taha, a lab worker at the Central Public Health Laboratory in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Mariam Taha.

Mariam Taha is a 36-year-old technical assistant at the Central Public Health Laboratory in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Since the first COVID-19 cases were detected in Iraq in February 2020, Taha’s life has changed drastically.

Taha, who normally works eight hours every day, now logs an 11-hour shift.

The nature of her work has shifted too; the laboratory has become entirely dedicated to testing suspected COVID-19 cases. Taha is now in constant fear that she might contract the virus at work and spread it to her family.

“No matter how much I try to pretend that the situation is normal, what is happening makes me worry,” said Taha. “I wash and sterilize my hands all the time. I avoid crowded places and try to keep my distance from patients and colleagues,” she shared.

Although no COVID-19 cases have been recorded at the centre she works in and she takes every precautionary measure, including donning a face mask, gloves, goggles and suit while at work, anxiety about contracting and spreading the virus has become a part of Taha’s daily life.

“Every time I leave work, I feel anxious and stressed that I might infect my family. Before leaving the centre, I take off my disposable personal protective gear, and I sterilize myself using medical sterilization. As soon as I arrive home, and before physical contact with anyone in my family, I shower and wash the clothes I was wearing," Taha explains.

While the demands of her work have been difficult during the pandemic, Taha is dealing with challenges on other fronts as well.

She notes that her responsibilities as a wife and a mother have increased, especially after school closures. “My four children are now staying at home without schooling, except for one who is receiving distance learning online and requires my time to follow up on his homework.”

Providing for others, despite personal loss

Fayza Elias Rashu is sewing masks to distribute among the displaced community in the Sharya complex for displaced persons in the Duhok Governorate, northwestern Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Dak Organization for Ezidi Women Development.
Fayza Elias Rashu is sewing masks to distribute among the displaced community in the Sharya complex for displaced persons in the Duhok Governorate, northwestern Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Dak Organization for Ezidi Women Development.

Ten years ago, Fayza Elias Rashu and her family, who belong to the Yazidi minority group, left their home in Sinjar in the Nineveh Governorate in northern Iraq in a bid to improve their living conditions. They settled in the Sharya complex for displaced persons in the Duhok Governorate, northwestern Iraq, where Rashu, using her previous sewing experience, found work as a dressmaker for the Dak Organization for Ezidi Women Development.

The position enabled Rashu to support her family, and she excelled at the job, training many women and girls on sewing.

“I love my work very much. I’ve always loved sewing and with the training opportunities that I’ve received from many organizations, I have fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a professional dressmaker,” Rashu shares.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Rashu dreamed of expanding her small shop into a large workshop, but the situation has forced her to close the business.

Despite the loss, Rashu continues to sew for others. With the support of the Dak Organization, one of UN Women’s partner organizations, Fayza has sown more than 500 and distributed them, free-of-charge, to her community.

“I wanted to do something of value for my community, especially those suffering from forced displacement. This is something I have wanted to do for so long,” she says proudly.

Pushing for improved resources for survivors of violence

Kajhal Nayef Rahman, Judge at the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, during an activity organized by UN Women in 2019. Photo: UN Women.
Kajhal Nayef Rahman, Judge at the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, during an activity organized by UN Women in 2019. Photo: UN Women.

Kajhal Nayef Rahman is a judge at the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Like many public officials, Judge Rahman and her office have been shouldering a heavy workload since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

She says that there has been a noticeable rise in the number of domestic violence cases in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) since the pandemic hit and containment measures were put in place, closing businesses and public offices across the country.

“The lockdown and the curfew have severely impacted the ability of women facing abuse at their homes to communicate with us and to seek help,” she explains.

Despite the security measures available in the area, such as shelters and safe housing for violence survivors, women in abusive situations still do not have adequate means to communicate with authorities, Judge Rahman says.

“With the closure of government departments and the curfew, the government should find ways to enable violence survivors to make complaints, seek help, and get needed assistance and protection. A domestic violence hotline, for example, could connect survivors to resources.”

After fighting the virus on the front lines, a dentist in Baghdad battles the disease herself

Dentist Shahd Al-Jawari takes part in an activity to raise awareness of the new coronavirus along with colleagues in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: Courtesy Iraq Women Journalists Forum.
Dentist Shahd Al-Jawari takes part in an activity to raise awareness of the new coronavirus along with colleagues in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: Courtesy Iraq Women Journalists Forum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected healthcare workers worldwide. A limited supply of personal protection equipment in Iraq has caused many front-line workers to fear for their health and safety, and that of their families as well.

Shahd Al-Jawari, a dentist working in the capital city of Baghdad, recently contracted the virus, most likely through her clinical practice or while participating in a public awareness campaign about the novel coronavirus.

Like others in the healthcare sector, Dr. Al-Jawari worked longer hours following the virus outbreak, as she fought to curb the spread and protect the health and safety of others.

“Due to the current situation, doctors have to be in hospitals for longer hours regardless of their specializations,” Dr. Al-Jawari said in an interview with the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum, one of UN Women’s partners, in early May, before contracting the virus.

Dr. Al-Jawari also stated that there are more women working in the health sector in Iraq than men, estimating that 60 per cent of all health workers across Iraq are women. She says this statistic is “a testimony to the capabilities of women in addition to their dedication, commitment, and patriotism."

"My work is no longer limited to the medical practice. I’ve also volunteered to present a TV programme to [raise awareness] on the risks of this virus and ways to protect oneself. I’ve taken many field trips to hospitals and quarantine stations and helped patients,”.

Despite all her precautionary measures, Dr. Al-Jawari contracted the coronavirus and was recently moved to an intensive care unit in a Baghdad hospital. A breast cancer survivor, Dr. Al Jawari continues to fight the virus with optimism, determination and hope.

Leading the way in the fight against coronavirus

Wasan Al-Tamimi on an inspection visit along with her team to a location in Al-Muthanna Governorate in southern Iraq. Photo Courtesy of SAWA Organization for Human Rights.
Wasan Al-Tamimi on an inspection visit along with her team to a location in Al-Muthanna Governorate in southern Iraq. Photo Courtesy of SAWA Organization for Human Rights.

“Resolute, persistent and courageous,” this is how colleagues of Wasan Aref Al-Tamimi describe her. Dr. Al-Tamimi is the Director of the Public Health Department of Al-Muthanna Governorate, in the southernmost part of Iraq.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring food safety is critical. Along with her team, Dr. Al-Tamimi examines all foodstuff that comes into the governorate for sale and public consumption and conducts inspections at local markets to make sure that food supplies meet the health standards.

She is also the only female member of the Government’s Crisis Cell in Al-Muthanna Governorate, She follows up on the implementation of coronavirus response plans in her community and liaises with all relevant actors – medical staff, crisis teams and public health officials.

“We have an active role in following up on suspected as well as confirmed coronavirus cases,” explains Dr. Al Tamimi. “I take the lead in solving any problems facing my team members at hospitals and during inspection tours, particularly when people resist being quarantined.”

Like many other women on the front line, her work doesn’t end when she goes home. A single mother of three, she juggles long hours of paid work and parenting: “I am trying to make sure that …I am spending time with [my children], listening to them, and discussing any problems they face.”