By Army Sgt. Rodney Foliente
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 17, 2009 - A large crowd of Iraqi girls and women, ranging from teenagers to grandmothers, gathered at a youth center in Diwaniya, Iraq, March 8 for a graduation ceremony and to mark International Women's Day. "There is progress here in Diwaniya and in much of Iraq," said an Iraqi interpreter, known only as Esraa, who attended the ceremony. "The future looks much better for women, and self-sufficiency for us is more possible."
The graduates received certificates for completing courses in skills such as making clothes, silk flowers, crafts and art, which offer financial opportunities in the local economy.
In this arid country, colorful commodities often are in demand, one of the graduates said, noting that future classes are planned, including courses in computer technology.
"I felt proud and surprised to see those women who are working hard to build upon their lives and not have to always count on others," Esraa said. "I cheered for them. It's good to have information and knowledge to improve their lives. I have a greater hope for the future."
A display of artwork aimed at celebrating International Women's Day touched upon the plight, history, goals, accomplishments and freedom of women.
"The goal was to develop their skills so they may be more self-reliant economically," said Mike Klecheski, leader of the provincial reconstruction team in Diwaniya. "It was really encouraging and nice to see so many people so enthusiastic and upbeat. It was partly because I think they were so satisfied and proud that they had accomplished so much and learned some very important skills."
The project was initiated by local women and an Iraqi nongovernmental organization. The PRT helped to facilitate the program, but the NGO and local Iraqis "took the lead in the program of encouraging civil society activity – organizing and developing a strong program to help individuals with their needs," Klecheski said.
"We supported the training and the NGO. Supporting efforts that empower people, strengthen their ability to earn money and strengthen the economy are all elements that the PRT is working on," he said. "This was just one example. We work very closely with our Iraqi partners. We try to implement what they suggest. They know what their needs are. It was their idea to do this training."
Klecheski called the event a great example of economic development, civil society development and celebrating International Women's Day."
"Women organizing themselves for a very positive goal, that's what Women's International Day is about -- that sense of consciousness and being able to do things for themselves," he said.
Women in Iraq are becoming increasingly more active in ensuring their rights and creating more economic opportunities, said Esraa, who added that women's rights in Iraq have increased by at least 50 percent since the fall of the old regime, and that the changes have been more drastic recently.
Still, she said, many people cling to how things were, when not as many women were encouraged to own shops or work as professionals. Some families still don't allow girls to get past secondary school, and they are forced to quit education when they get married, Esraa said.
"Many are not allowed to go to college, because their families don't want them to," she said. But the number of women going to college or making a living for their families is on the rise, she added.
Single mothers and widows are getting a better chance to take care of their children, she said. Though more remains to be done, she added, the road is getting easier and more promising.
(Army Sgt. Rodney Foliente serves with the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)