Widows Often Find Help Elusive in Iraq

War widows head some of the 500 impoverished families living in the bombed-out former offices of the Iraqi air force, now a squatter settlement, in Baghdad. Small government stipends fail to keep widows out of poverty.
War widows head some of the 500 impoverished families living in the bombed-out former offices of the Iraqi air force, now a squatter settlement, in Baghdad. Small government stipends fail to keep widows out of poverty. (Photos By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

BAGHDAD -- She has progressed a few paces in five hours under the glaring sun, but still the line of women in black robes stretches far in front of her. In three more hours, the Labor Ministry will close, and Aida Qamel will return home for another few months, until she has another free day to search for someone who will listen to a widow's story in Baghdad.

"My husband was blown up in his video game shop. I was a housewife," she begins quietly, keeping one arm firmly wrapped around her 7-year-old son, Mohammed.

Another widow interrupts. "I have seven children and my house collapsed."

Then more women from the line crowd in, speaking over one another as if it is all the same story.

"I've got two handicaps, and my husband was a farmer. Now we have nothing."

"Can someone just get me some cold water?"

"Are you going to help us at all?"

With each new car bombing, grenade explosion or mortar attack, the list of Iraq's widows grows longer. And each new case further overwhelms the beleaguered Iraqi government's welfare program intended to help them. At the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Baghdad, where staff members sometimes work in darkness during power outages, officials in charge of disbursing funds to widows admit they cannot keep up with the killings.

"The money is not sufficient. The time is not sufficient. Our lives are not sufficient at this point," said Isma Talib Mohammed, the head of the ministry's social welfare fund. "Many women cannot even come here to ask for money because the security situation does not allow it."

Iraq this year has $337 million to disburse from the fund for all welfare cases, not just widows, in a program that covers 500,000 people. A widow with no children is eligible for $34 a month from the government, while the maximum monthly disbursement is $81 for a widow with five or more children -- neither amount enough to escape from poverty.

But whether this money even makes it to the right home -- at a time in Iraq when sectarian violence has displaced thousands of families -- is impossible to know. The ongoing killing means it is too dangerous for Iraqi social workers to make visits to welfare recipients, said Isam Abdul Latif Mohammed, a Labor Ministry official.

"We could know about the living situation of the recipients, but for the time being such a thing is not possible," he said. "So some errors might take place."


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