Image: Nawal al-Samarraie
Karim Kadim  /  AP
Nawal al-Samarraie talks about her decision to resign as Iraq's state minister of women's affairs in Baghdad on Sunday.
updated 2/8/2009 7:36:37 PM ET 2009-02-09T00:36:37

Iraq's state minister for women's affairs has quit to protest a lack of resources for a daunting task — improving the lives of "a full army of widows" and other women left poor or abandoned by war.

In an interview Sunday with The Associated Press, Nawal al-Samarraie described how her office's budget was so tight that she often found herself dipping into her own pockets for the women who came begging for help.

She said she finally submitted her resignation last week in part because her budget was slashed from $7,500 to $1,500 per month — part of overall government spending cuts forced by plunging oil prices. The figure didn't include staff salaries.

"I reached to the point that I will never be able to help the women," said al-Samarraie, whose job lasted just six months. "The budget is very limited ... so what can I do?"

Thousands left widowed by war
Al-Samarraie's resignation has cast a spotlight on the overwhelming problems facing Iraqi women, tens of thousands of them left poor or widowed by war.

An untold number have lost their husbands or other male relatives to violence or detention since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, often leaving them alone with children and virtually no safety net or job opportunities.

Al-Samarraie claimed Iraq has 3 million widows, calling it "a full army of widows, most of them not educated." The figure, which she said came from a government survey, includes those who lost their husbands under Saddam Hussein's regime and was impossible to verify.

All Iraqis have undergone difficulties, but women face the additional danger of being sidelined in a male-dominated society. Widows in Iraq, for example, traditionally move in with their extended families, but many families find it increasingly difficult to care for them.

Other problems for women include homelessness, domestic violence and the random detention of women caught up in U.S.-Iraqi military sweeps.

Female lawmakers Sunday urged al-Samarraie to change her mind, and demanded that the government get serious about helping women.

"Iraqi women need a national strategy to empower them and support their constitutional, legal, health and social rights," Safiya al-Suhail, a lawmaker from a secular party, said at a news conference.

Things quickly went downhill
Al-Samarraie, a 47-year-old gynecologist and mother of five, said things quickly went downhill after she assumed her post on July 22, when her Sunni political party ended a boycott to rejoin the Shiite-dominated government.

The former lawmaker, who previously served on the Iraqi parliament's health committee, was full of ideas about how to help Iraqi women, from establishing regional offices and vocational programs to building a women's center that would double as a mall.

But her office — with a staff of 18 — was not a full ministry and had insufficient authority or resources to help women facing great hardship after nearly six years of war, she said.

She gave some of her own money to one woman who was left homeless with her four children after her husband was detained, her two brothers were killed and her father died.

"She's not educated, so she and her four children were in the street," al-Samarraie recalled. "I felt if I will not help her she will go in a wrong way. So I tried to help her to make a small shop."

Al-Samarraie warned of the desperate Iraqi women who have become suicide bombers.

"Many of them are widows, or homeless or hopeless," she said. "No one opened the door for them."

Other ministries face budget cuts
Other Iraqi ministries have faced the same, steep budget cuts, but al-Samarraie insisted women should be given priority because they make up 65 percent of the population and because so many have been stranded by the war after their husbands and brothers were killed or detained.

Al-Suhail, the female lawmaker, urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to refuse al-Samarraie's resignation and instead work with her to create an independent commission for women, with a larger budget.

But al-Samarraie said al-Maliki signed her resignation the day she submitted it.

A government spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

"It's not such an important issue for him," she said. "It doesn't have the priority in the Iraqi government and not even the second or third."

But she said she planned to travel to Turkey for an international conference on Iraqi women soon and would think about the pleas for her to return to the job.

"Maybe with the next government it will be a priority," she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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