Mohamed, a recently married Iraqi friend who works in the
hotel where we stay in Baghdad, is expecting a child soon.
Shortly before we left nearly three weeks ago, he approached
some members of our seven-member peace delegation with troubling
information about his wifes pregnancy. She will need
a Cesarean sectionunfortunately, on his salary, Mohamed
cannot afford the operation.
Our team feels helpless listening to Mohameds story
amid the millions of others like it in Iraq. Even so, it isnt
wise for us to get a reputation as problem-solvers. We do
what we can, but working against the United Nations-imposed
economic sanctions on Iraq can often be overwhelming.
As a woman visiting Iraq, I often have entrance into particular
social situations unfamiliar to men, like holding hands or
sitting next to mothers at the hospitals that tend their sick
children. I grow particularly empathetic as I imagine myself
in their shoes. I know the rage I feel here in the United
States toward misguided economic policies meant to target
Saddam Hussein but that directly affect the most vulnerable
people in society: the women and children.
This Iraqi clasroom may soon gain over one-third new capacity. More than 35 percent
of girls drop out of primary school due to the need to help support their families.
In Iraq, life for women (especially mothers) was much better
prior to the United Nations sanctions, imposed in August of
1990. From 1975 to 1985, the Iraqi government invested large
amounts of money in social programs, such as education and
health care. A program to eradicate illiteracy among Iraqi
women was exceedingly successful, and women have traditionally
enjoyed freedoms not found in other contemporary Arab and
In an Oct. 1 New York Times article, Nicholas Kristof reported
on the liberal attitudes toward women in Iraq. He wrote that
women routinely serve in non-combat positions in the military.
They pray, dine and swim together with men. Girls compete
in sports as often as boys do.
Compare these tremendous opportunities with those in neighboring
countries such as Saudi Arabia, where repressive attitudes
cloister women from public life into sometimes dangerous situations.
In March, a group of Saudi girls was incinerated, having been
denied exit from a burning building because they were not
covered by a hijab, or head scarf.
Although more openminded in its attitudes, Iraq has become
decidedly more dangerous for women and children since the
Gulf War due to the breakdown in medical care and especially
in preventive medicine. Mohameds wife knows this predicament
all too well.
In Basra, where much of the Gulf War fighting transpired,
25 of the 26 obstetrics and gynecology students are women.
During my first visit to Iraq in August 2001, however, I spoke
with a physician at the Basra Pediatric Hospital who said
that 90 percent of the women in Southern Iraq suffered from
severe anemia, a health indicator with serious implications
for women and children.
Severely anemic nursing mothers cannot provide their babies
adequate nutrition. Thus, even breastfeeding has become problematic
during the past 12 years of economic sanctions.
A UNICEF document from April of this year states that many
Iraqi mothers have stopped breastfeeding and that only 17
percent breastfeed during their babys first four months.
Under the Oil for Food Programme of 1995, a food basket handout
for Iraqi families contains powdered formula that mothers
This is problematic for many reasons, among them that the
formula requires water for preparation. Nearly 62 percent
of women said they report giving their babies water in the
first month of life, and nearly 32 percent of the children
drink unboiled waterbut the water in Iraq is severely
contaminated. Many of the water purification, sewage treatment
and electrical facilities were bombed during the Gulf War
and remain largely unrepaired and are functioning at minimal
capacity for a growing nation of 24 million.
Last fall, Thomas Nagy, a Washington, D.C. professor, released a study called
Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraqs
Water Supply. In this paper, he details information in government documents
from 1991 about how the Gulf War strategy included destroying Iraqs civilian
infrastructure, which violates Geneva Convention articles.
It notes, Nagy reported, that Iraqs
rivers contain biological materials [and] pollutants
and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified
with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis
and typhoid could occur. Iraq will suffer increasing
shortages of purified water because of the lack of required
chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences of disease,
including possible epidemics, will become probable unless
the population were careful to boil water.
Currently, the killer of children in Iraq is gastroenteritis,
caused by drinking contaminated water. One in eight children
do not see their first birthdays. Imagine the helplessness
of being a mother in Iraq, knowing what life was like before
the Gulf War and before economic sanctions, wanting nothing
more than to be a good mother and provide a healthy, nutritious,
safe life for her children.
In a meeting with the chief medical officer at the Basra Pediatric
Hospital, I inquired about the status of preventive health
care for women in Iraq. His response was that there is none.
This is quite remarkable for Iraq, which until 1990 had eradicated
all childhood illnesses and had the most comprehensive health
care system in the Middle East.
While abysmally lacking resources and training programs, the
medical field is nowhere as bleak as the education climate
in Iraq, especially for young girls. More than 35 percent
of girls drop out before the end of primary school due to
the high price of school supplies and the need to help supplement
the familys income by going to work, likely begging.
It seems we are condemning the women and children of Iraq
to a fate similar to that of the 25 percent of American children
who live in poverty, the 45 million people without health
insurance and the 30,000 homeless in New York City alone.
Conflict is the last thing people in Iraq need,
UNICEF in Iraq reports. And when our group inquired about
the potential effects of President Bushs growing military
campaign, an official at the World Food Programme office in
Baghdad sighed: The poorest people in Iraq will suffer
the most. n
Leah C. Wells, a Santa Paula teacher, serves as peace education coordinator
for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara. She recently paid a second
visit to Iraq and opposes the economic sanctions and no-fly-zone incursions on
that country. She can be contacted at email@example.com.