Marines, PRT aim to help Rutbah’s widows
February 28, 2009
RUTBAH, Iraq — Giving a widow a sewing machine isn’t easy in this religiously conservative desert town.
First, you have to get the blessing of the town’s imam, who is worried that by creating a female–run group to distribute the sewing machines, the women will gain too much authority. Then, the all-male city council has to vote to allow the group to exist.
But the U.S. Marines stationed near Rutbah, a town of 20,000 in extreme western Iraq, have the imam on board and soon expect the council to approve a charter for the group. By helping the 200 widows of Rutbah get small loans to buy sewing machines, the women can begin selling their own scarves, clothes and bags, and, U.S. officials hope, become self-sufficient.
The problem of widows in Iraq has become widespread — according to the United Nations, during the height of the sectarian violence in 2006, nearly 100 women were widowed each day.
Now, an estimated one in 11 Iraqi women is a widow.
Widows are eligible for a $50 monthly government stipend — with an additional $12 per child — but only around 20 percent of the widows actually receive the aid.
In Rutbah, the seemingly small step of distributing the sewing machines is "a huge step forward" for the region, said Jerry Calhoun, leader of the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team at Camp Korean Village.
"The farther west [in Iraq] you go, the more traditional the religion and the beliefs," he said. "So you tend to have less rights for women the farther west you go, and we’re about as far west as you can go."
The PRT, a U.S. State Department group that works on community development, is spending $20,000 to buy approximately 100 sewing machines. Those machines will be donated to a new, female-run nongovernmental organization that will then sell them to the widows.
While not unusual in Iraq, a female-run NGO is radical in this extremely conservative Sunni region, where women begin wearing head scarves by puberty and rarely speak to men outside their families.
When Lt. Cmdr. Kobena Arthur, chaplain for the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, first approached the town’s imam about starting a project to help women become self-sufficient, "He just shook his head no," Arthur said.
So the chaplain narrowed his focus: Start an NGO to help only widows, who typically rely on relatives or money their children make doing odd jobs to survive. The imam, Mahmoud Abed Nubin Obid, accepted the idea on the grounds that it agreed with the Muslim tenet of helping the poor, he said.
The NGO is also unusual because while some of the widows of Rutbah lost their husbands to illness, some were married to men who died trying to kill U.S. troops.
Some were patients in Rutbah’s hospital when it was hit by a U.S. bomb in the early days of the invasion, Obid said. Others were shot by Americans when they inadvertently drove or walked into the wrong spot.
And still others died while planting bombs meant for the Americans. The bombs exploded, killing them instead, Obid said.
Arthur said the United States hopes to change the negative image and, in some cases, hatred that the townspeople feel toward the U.S.
"They think that we did them wrong," Arthur said.
"We want to change that mind-set. Everything we do is about changing that mind-set."
Obid said accepting help from the Americans is hard for some of the widows, but they do it because they have no choice.
"They believe [the Americans] killed their loved ones," he said. "No matter what, there isn’t anything you can do to change that."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Marie, who is stationed at Korean Village, said it doesn’t bother him that the U.S. is trying to help the survivors of possible insurgents.
"I think it’s a little easier for us because a lot of us weren’t here when a lot of people were getting killed," he said. "It’s not personal for us."
Since last summer, the United States has been delivering food to the widows of Rutbah each week. But as the number of U.S. troops in this once-violent region dwindles in the coming months, so will the food aid.
"We can’t continue to bring food all the time to them. If we’re going to support these females, we need to give them something that will empower them," Arthur said.