By Army Spc. Stephanie Cassinos
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 15, 2009 - The view from a Humvee window in rural Iraq is a confusing sight. Small, broken structures disrupt long stretches of sand. Closer to town, abandoned vehicles corrode on the side of the road, trash collects in puddles and ditches, and people herd animals mere yards away from shops on the street. It's almost as if a hurricane swept through a few centuries of development and everything landed at random. There is no rhyme or reason to the landscape, and everything seems out of place.
"What can you expect?" asked Margaret Jaji, a bilingual bicultural advisor for the Women's Initiatives program. "These people have seen war for 28 years."
Jaji would know. A Christian Iraqi native, she left Baghdad shortly after U.N. sanctions were put into place in 1991 and moved to Chicago, later becoming a U.S. citizen. She not only serves as an interpreter, but also as a cultural advisor to Multinational Division South's provincial reconstructive teams.
Jaji's knowing interjections make the mission to communicate with and assess the needs of Iraqi women easier. But easy wouldn't be the right word to describe the Women's Initiatives program.
"That's the thing with Women's Initiatives; people associate it with bra burning, radical stuff," said Army Capt. Jennifer Glossinger, Women's Initiatives coordinator. "They think it's like going and serving the homeless for Thanksgiving. It's a nice thing to do, but it's not really necessary."
The role of Glossinger and Jaji is to be a voice for the Iraqi women, including thousands of Iraqi widows who inhabit the rural areas and whose families may be more susceptible to terrorist activities. By speaking to women from various locations, they are able to assess their needs, and in turn, develop programs to give them the tools they need to generate more income.
Education is the most valuable thing that can be given to these women, Glossinger noted.
"They came into the eyes of the military because of security issues, but at the same time you want to help educate them, provide them with something nobody can take away, because they've had everything else taken away from them," she said.
Glossinger said the estimated thousands of widows in southern Iraq are the reason she and Jaji have convoyed to Querna and Zabir with pen and paper in hand. The conferences they hold in these rural parts of Iraq are why women travel in high numbers, cloaked in traditional black hijabs, to share their life stories with them, stories that follow a similar theme of death, poverty and destitution.
"When you think about our culture, if you were married and you lost your husband, nine times out of 10, if you had a good relationship with your family, your family is going to take care of you. Your friends are going to take care of you," Glossinger said. "You're going to have a support system, a church system, or something. These women don't have that."
As one Iraqi woman spoke in Querna of recently losing her mother-in-law, something shifted in the crowded, little conference room. Women began to comfort each other. They understood the loss. Tears began to flow. The soldiers there cried, too.
Many things wind up lost in translation, but not tears. Everyone understands pain.
The Women's Initiatives program is an important part of the provincial reconstruction team's missions, one of the most dramatic investments to ensure the success of Iraq's economy.
"If you take gender out of the equation, and you just look at bang for the buck, over 55 percent of the population is female," Glossinger said. "My hunch is that in [Multinational Division South's area of responsibility], particularly in Basra, the population of women is greater than that."
From a business perspective, investing money into developing the female workforce is imperative to improving the Iraqi economy, said Glossinger, who has worked as a civilian in pharmaceutical sales.
"If you ignore 55 percent of your population, you're ignoring the vast majority of where your business is. That's over half of the population," she explained. "If you take the gender out of it and you just look at the amounts of people, the greatest amounts of people are going to be women and widows."
The end goal is the presentation, approval and implementation of proposed projects to empower the Iraqi women to improve their quality of life and boost the economy.
"We've concentrated mostly on agriculture in the other eight provinces because 80 percent of the employment comes from agriculture, and 70 percent of that work force is women," Glossinger said.
"You have to be able to take everything and break it down into priorities," she said. "What are we going to do? We are never going to be able to change their culture. They have to change it on their own. The only thing we can do is provide them with more education and more economic stability."
Glossinger and Jaji will continue to speak to more women and prepare for the intricate work ahead of them. They will begin drafting programs to benefit women, most likely educational and agricultural projects. Meticulous planning will be in place, picking women to represent each of the villages, determining a location to hold classes and deciding who will teach what, whether it be sewing, farming, harvesting honey, weaving rugs or other skills to enable them to profit in the workforce.
Other works on the horizon include water sanitation projects, basic health care and first-aid training, and a legal assistance program to aid illiterate women in receiving small government stipends available to them.
With diligence and patience, women may be the stepping stone to improving the economy in Iraq, enabling it to continue striving toward a future as a sustainable nation.
(Army Spc. Stephanie Cassinos serves in Multinational Division South.)