By Rick Haverinen
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 25, 2009 - The Gulf Region Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq unveiled two initiatives March 21 that will expand Iraqi businesswomen's ability to gain work with the division. GRD officials announced the initiatives at the division-hosted Women-Owned Business and the Future Conference in Baghdad's Al-Rasheed Hotel.
The division has set aside a percentage of contracts in the Foreign Military Sales and Iraqi Security Force Funds programs to award to women-owned businesses in Iraq, Navy Capt. Joseph Konicki, GRD's director of military programs, said.
The contract set-asides mark the first time GRD is tapping into a portion of its Foreign Military Sales program, which is ultimately funded by the Iraqi government to build its own military-related infrastructure, officials said. The additional Iraqi Security Force Funds program, which also has a set-aside portion for Iraqi businesswomen, is U.S-funded.
Konicki said Iraqi businesswomen are welcome to bid on contracts for any projects they feel competent to complete, not just the percentage of work specifically set aside for them.
The conference, organized by Azza Humadi, program manager for GRD's Women's Advocate Initiative, opened a dialogue for strategies to keep the program running when U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq.
"The title, 'Women-owned Business and the Future,' means we have finished an era, and are entering a new one," Humadi told the audience. She expressed concern that the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq will affect her program, as fewer people will require help from Iraqis who provide service and construction work.
However, American and Iraqi officials who have supported the initiative said the program is stable and able to continue in the years to come.
"I personally believe that we have made great strides in the last few years of supporting Iraqi women-owned business," said Army Brig. Gen. William Phillips, commander for the Joint Contracting Command Iraq and Afghanistan, "but in the end, I do not think that what we have done is enough.
"I think it is important that we maintain the momentum that we have achieved to date of making women a stronger and larger contributor to the Iraqi economy," he said.
That theme also was expressed by Iraqi government representatives.
"We feel we are on the threshold of a new era in which the woman is looking forward to playing a big role in political, economic, social and cultural life," Iraqi Member of Parliament Shatha al-Musawi said. "The global financial crisis and low oil prices have forced the government of Iraq to resort to an ascetic budget. That stopped the hiring of new civil servants, so we are looking forward to the private sector to hire the unemployed."
Iraqi Minister of Human Rights Wijdan Mikhael referenced a survey held by the Central Organization for Statistics, noting, "Thirty-seven percent of (Iraqi) women are unemployed, and 19 percent of men are jobless. It is pitiful to see women and children being employed in some factories just because they are used to getting low wages.
"Women's rush to the fields of work and production enables them to establish a new reality that cannot be denied," he said.
Since 2004, GRD has completed 4,400 projects in Iraq, valued at nearly $7 billion. Joint Contracting Command Iraq and Afghanistan has awarded about $450 million to women-owned businesses since 2005, officials said. Women-owned businesses in Iraq were awarded $187 million in contracts in fiscal 2008.
(Rick Haverinen works for the Gulf Region Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq.)