26/10/2012 04:47 BST | Updated 28/10/2012 13:32 GMT

Zainab Salbi: I Had A Duty To Fight Injustice After Growing Up In Iraq

Zainab Salbi is, in a roundabout way, grateful for Saddam Hussein.

The 42-year-old co-founder of Women for Women International says without growing up in Iraq during a time of war, when her father worked for the "brutal” dictator as his pilot, she would not have known about fear.

"I find myself very grateful for understanding what fear feels like because otherwise I would not have been able to go to conflict areas,” she tells The Huffington Post UK.

But back then it was "not an easy experience.” "The devil is a fallen angel. That experience was about fear. Although I find myself grateful for this knowledge now, it tormented me for a long time. There is so much fear in that case that it sort of takes over you.

"He killed his best friend, not only his opponents from afar. There were no limits to his brutality.”


Zainab Salbi won the Barclays women of the year award this week in London

The 42-year-old co-founder of Women for Women international, a charity that helps women rebuild their lives after war, has just won another accolade - this time the Barclay’s Women of the Year award.

The humanitarian and women’s rights activists has also been honoured by Bill Clinton, Time magazine, and the World Economic foundation. Not to mention the fact that she was named as one of Newsweek’s 100 Extraordinary Women who Shake the World.

She was 11 and living in Iraq when her country went to war with Iran, an experience she credits with helping her understand "what war is.”

"In my case as a child I saw all the men in the frontline but it was my mother and all of her friends who were keeping us at school and keeping the food going and working and keeping life going,” she says.

Looking back, she says, it’s part of what inspired her - along with her mother, who "was a very strong woman and who was always adamant that I had to be strong and had to be independent and that no man should talk to me or touch me the wrong way, and I should never learn to cook or clean just because no man should ever expect me to do that, just because I was a woman.”

"So a very progressive mother, and a very fearful environment, in the midst and war and bombings and life and death almost on a daily basis. That's very much how I grew up,” she says.

"I don't think I was intentional or conscious about it in my twenties but in my forties, when I reflect back on my journey .. The fact that I formed an organisation which works with women survivors of war, taking myself constantly back over and over again to war zones, obviously was impacted by my own familiarity with wars.”

It was the Bosnian war that inspired Salbi and her husband Amjad Atallah to start Women for Women international in 1993. What began in Bosnia, grew and went to Rwanda, Afghanistan Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many others.

Since then the organisation has helped more than 315,000 female survivors of war access help and education.

"I did not know where Bosnia was, I had no affiliation with Bosnia or Bosnians. I literally had to go to the library at the time and understand everything about the country and who they are and what they are for,” she says.

"They were in war and the understanding I have is that when you are in a war you think the whole world has abandoned you and lose your faith in humanity because when you're in the midst of the violation of your rights. I felt exactly what that feeling is, a sense of abandonment and being cut off from the world.

"And whilst I could not do anything about injustice when I was growing up in Iraq, for to do something about it would have led my family to be killed, most likely, or prosecuted by Saddam, I felt I had no choice but to act when I was in America, in a country that gave me the freedom to express myself.

"It was a very simple desire, I felt an obligation to do something for other people when I could. I had no excuse not to act.”

For her, it’s important to focus on the role of women in war - away from frontline conflict. They are, she says, the people that stay behind and make children go to school, go to work, and comfort their children in the midst of terror.

zainab salbi

Women for women international has helped more than 300,000 female survivors of war around the world

The one thing she thinks will help women around the world? To shift the perception of female refugees (and she points out more than 80% of refugees are women and children) from "victims” to the people that keep their families going.

"When we see refugee women the image that comes to all our mind is that of a victim and when you talk to refugee women the clarity that comes very fast is one strong woman that is fighting like a lioness to keep her family alive.

"If we're not going to shift our attitude and our treatment and thus our services and our policies towards them, to reflect their stances, and that investment and the need for further investment in their development then we are missing out.”

To find out more about women for women international, click here.