Working with women refugees in Northern Iraq

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Mandana Hendessi, Iraq Country Director for Women for Women International, will be speaking at a dinner hosted by WAM UK on Tuesday 2nd May 2017 in London.

She will be talking about the work that Women for Women International (WfWi) and its partners are doing in and around refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq where they are providing life and business skills training to women refugees, as well as psycho-social support and crucially, a safe space for women to gather, share experiences and support each other. Tickets to the event are available here.

Warvin Foundation - Dohuk

Ahead of the event, we asked Mandana to tell us a little of the work that is going on and why it has been important for Women for Women International to engage in this issue.

What impact is the project having on women refugees in areas like Northern Iraq?

We have reached out to 600 Syrian refugee women living both inside and outside camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since November 2014. We have provided psycho-social support, livelihood training, women’s rights and gender-based violence awareness and prevention and access to justice. We have also provided training in business and leadership skills for the women. As a result of our training and support, we have seen the women improve their self-confidence, which enables them to be more involved in decision-making in the household as well as in the community. It empowers them to build and develop support networks in the community, connect to essential services, as well as become more confident in reporting harassment, abuse and violence to authorities. Importantly they are improving their income generation.

Why has WfWi chosen to work in this specific area?

When the war in Syria intensified in 2012, we were concerned about Syrian women and tried to find ways of supporting them but found it impossible to work in Syria itself as the security there deteriorated very rapidly. So we decided to support Syrian refugee women in neighbouring countries. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was chosen because of the large influx of Syrian refugees there and the relative security it provided to work with the women through local partners.

What is it like for women living in the camps and surrounding areas?

Whilst living in a camp can provide some security and protection for women, it takes away their individuality, reducing them to a number. However, women who live outside camps are often more vulnerable to harassment and abuse by local men. They are often caring for their families on their own. Furthermore, they are more likely to be poorer, having to make ends meet on very low income.

The biggest threat to Syrian women in Kurdistan Region of Iraq is gender-based violence, which impedes their chances of finding gainful employment. Many of our beneficiaries have recounted experiences to us of when they have searched for jobs and were told by prospective employers that they would get a job if they had sex with them. Other women say they do not set foot outside the home because they fear abuse and harassment by local men ranging from taxi drivers to doctors.

What would happen to some of these women and their families if they didn’t receive support?

I can think of a few obvious possibilities: chronic physical and mental ill-health, heightened risk of violence, poor hygiene and nutrition, losing hope and inspiration – to sum up, the slow and painful death of a generation.

What are the prospects for people living in the camps?

Living in a camp should just be an emergency measure. It’s cruel and inhumane to expect people to live in a camp for years with no prospect of integration into the wider host country. We cannot subject people to such a restricted and soul-less existence for so long! The host countries have to find creative measures of integrating refugee and displaced families into the community. This is essential – refugee and displaced women have so much to offer not just to their own communities, but also to the host community, enriching the local culture.

Of course one would hope that the conflict in Syria and Iraq ends soon, that infrastructure is reconstructed, peace and reconciliation achieved so that Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqi women and their families are able to return home – but some may bond with their places of exile and with people who have embraced them; they settle into new jobs and new ways of living. They need to be allowed to exercise choices about where they want to settle – where they feel secure and comfortable.

 Is the situation getting worse in these areas/camps?

The current situation is desperate – I can’t think of a situation that could be worse than this! For the long-term, we need to work for peace and justice for all in the region; meanwhile, we need to run programmes for refugees and displaced women that aim to nurture their resilience and talents, helping them to rebuild their lives wherever they are and live more fulfilled lives with their families.

 

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Mandana Hendessi is an international development professional with over 25 years’ experience in management, consulting, designing and developing programmes for civil society organisations, governments, International NGOs, and the UN, covering a diversity of socio-economic and human rights issues.

Nearly all of her international experience has been in conflict-affected contexts. For example, in Iraq, Mandana supported the nascent women’s movement to secure a 25% quota for women’s representation in the parliament (2004). In the West Bank, she provided technical assistance to Palestinian women’s enterprises on a range of issues from market research to business planning (2007). In Afghanistan, as the Head of Mission for Medica Mondiale, an international NGO, she led on the development of psycho-social counseling and legal aid for Afghan women who have experienced gender-based violence, promoting access to justice for women who came into conflict with the law.

Prior to joining WfWI in February 2015, Mandana most recently directed the Afghanistan Program at Global Rights, where she engaged young Afghans to support and promote democratic values, the rule of law, and the rights of women.

Since 1993, Women for Women International has helped more than 447,000 marginalised women in countries affected by war and conflict. They serve women in 8 countries including Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Iraq, offering support, tools, and access to life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.

Women for Women International brings women together in a safe space to learn life, business, and vocational skills.  Once enrolled, each woman receives a monthly stipend – a vital support that enables her to participate. Women increase their ability to earn an income with new skills that are in demand. They learn about their legal rights, and they become knowledgeable about health and nutrition. The result: stronger women, stronger families, and stronger communities. The ripple effect is profound.

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