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Iraqi women no better off, UN official says
( 2003-09-24 09:39) (Agencies)

In many ways, Iraqi women are worse off than before U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein and are too afraid to play a big political role for fear of being a target of extremists, a senior U.N. official said on Tuesday.

Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said the poor security situation prevented women from playing a bigger role in rebuilding Iraq.

"For many women, they do not want to take the risk. They have seen what happened to Akila al-Hashemi," Heyzer said. Hashemi, one of three women on the Iraqi Governing Council, was critically wounded in an attack in Baghdad last Saturday.

"We need to address this culture of fear and the culture of terrorism as until you do that you are not going to have people (women) participating," Heyzer said at a lunch to discuss the role of women in conflict zones.

The United States has said women should play a big role in rebuilding Iraq but Heyzer, whose organization promotes women's rights and tries to improve the lot of women in developing countries, said many women saw the risk as being too high.

"Even if they want to engage they feel they can't at the moment," she said.


In many areas, Iraqi women were too afraid to take their children to school for fear of them being attacked and some were being forced by male relatives to wear veils as a means of protection.

"They are trying to get on with everyday life ... but life is, in that sense, worse for Iraqi women even though there are possibilities of greater opportunities as they move toward democracy," she told Reuters.

Heyzer said there was a contest between moderates and extremists to win over women in Iraq and the international community needed to do more to support women, who were among the most educated in the Middle East.

"There was a lot of hope that the lives (of women) would improve ... but we have a situation where a lot of extremists have come into the country and women do not want to live under such extremism."

Before the bombing of the U.N.'s headquarters in Baghdad last month, Heyzer said the United Nations had mobilized about 450 women for a national symposium.

But after the bombing, she said this meeting was canceled and those women were now too frightened to become openly involved in such a process.

"Now they want to be involved under the radar screen and to have local consultations. When the timing is right we will bring them all back together again."

Under Saddam's rule, she said women had played some leadership roles but that they had been ignored at the local level and this was where her organization was working hardest in Iraq.

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