Cycles of war and internal conflict in Iraq have led to massive material and human loss, leaving behind many women to reckon with economic crisis without their primary breadwinners.
As they have done throughout history, Iraqi women have answered the call with strength and tenacity.
"We were displaced from Abu Ghraib district by the sectarian conflict [in 2006] and went to Al-Bayaa area in Baghdad. We returned after the conflict ended in 2010,” said Huda, 25. The severe wave of sectarian violence that swept Iraq beginning in 2006 led to the displacement of some 1.6 million families.
“My husband died of illness,” she continued, “and the responsibility to support [my children] became very big."
Huda has loved sewing and clothing design since she was 12 years old. As she improved her skills over the years, sewing became her source of livelihood. Since her displacement, Huda has worked as a seamstress in both Baghdad city centre and at home in Abu Ghraib district.
"The sewing machine that I use is old – from 2005. I am still working on it and have been thinking of buying one, but I don't have the financial means,” Huda explained. “The price of the machine starts at $250 [and goes up] to $450. This is too expensive."
After her return to Abu Ghraib, Huda participated in a cash-for-work sewing activity supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to supplement her income. The activity brought on 20 women from the area to produce uniform vests for local schoolgirls, and took place over 40 days in the Shams Al-Hayat Sewing Workshop.
The Shams Al-Hayat Sewing Workshop is run by Dr. Hayat Ibrahim, a psychology professor at the University of Baghdad who established the workshop towards the beginning of the sectarian conflict in order to support widows and vulnerable women in her community.
"I turned to humanitarian work in order to economically support women so that they can strengthen themselves such that their dignity is not [negatively] affected, as we live in a patriarchal society, and it is difficult for women to work, especially in Abu Ghraib,” said Dr. Ibrahim. “We worked on opportunities [for women] to build and help themselves."
When it first opened, the workshop had only ten sewing machines, but today that number has expanded to 24, and Dr. Ibrahim aims to grow it further, accommodating as many women as possible and supporting them to financially support themselves.
"The benefit from this workshop was financial and psychological. I learnt many things. The more a person grows, the more she needs to learn. She needs to develop herself,” said Huda, who took the role of a trainer during the activity. “I loved the young women’s new ideas and opinions. It was like exchanging experiences. I transferred my experience to them and showed them how to work on the machine and design. I gained some new designs from them, too. The workshop was very interesting, and we hope that such activities will be repeated.”
Like Huda, 52-year-old Ekhlas also participated in the Shams Al-Hayat sewing activity as a trainer.
Displaced from her home in Anbar Governorate’s Fallujah district in 2014 due to the presence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, Ekhlas remains in Abu Ghraib district with her husband and five children. They have no intention to return home.
“When we fled to Abu Ghraib, we had to rent a house and pay the rent [largely] through my work sewing clothes, since my husband cannot work because he suffers from chronic illnesses,” she said.
Ekhlas loves sewing and designing clothes. With 20 years of experience under her belt, she runs her own sewing business out of her home using an old sewing machine she has had for ten years now.
“I need a new sewing machine – there are very modern machines [available these days] – but my financial condition does not allow me to buy one as my income barely covers our living expenses,” Ekhlas explained.
“I know that it’s a tiring profession and requires high concentration, but the work is fun,” she said. For her, sewing is not just a hobby or a livelihood, it’s a means of improving her mental and emotional well-being – through both the work itself and her exchanges with other participants at Shams Al-Hayat. “Psychologically speaking, [the activity] contributed a lot to catharsis.”
Ekhlas added: “My relationship with my colleagues is good – we share our ideas, enjoy our work, spend a nice time together and gain new skills. New sewing techniques caught my attention, and we learned how to work as a team and increase high-quality production. This is a valuable opportunity to learn new things.”
Approximately 1,500 school uniforms were sewn during this activity. During September, these were distributed to six girls’ schools in Abu Ghraib’s Al-Shuhada area, for students who are orphans or whose families have little income.
Both Huda and Ekhlas continue to work as tailors at Shams Al-Hayat and are saving up for new sewing machines.
In the wake of the immense destruction left behind after the conclusion of the ISIL conflict, several factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, volatile oil prices and a decrease in the value of the Iraqi dinar came together to produce a state of widespread economic decline in Iraq. Effects can be felt most acutely by vulnerable populations such as those impacted by protracted displacement. Women in particular face heightened barriers to economic participation and achieving financial self-sufficiency.
IOM Iraq supports efforts to increase women’s economic opportunities and participation, including through Cash-for-Work programmes, which quickly put much-needed cash in the pockets of those most in need, while also contributing to reconstruction and economic revitalization in communities still rebuilding after the ISIL conflict.
This cash-for-work activity was made possible by support from the Government of Germany, through KfW.