Today is International Widows Day. Worldwide, millions of bereaved women are facing the hardship of financial destitution and the injustice of gender inequality, without their husbands by their side. In Iraq alone, attacks by the monstrous Daesh/ISIS in the summer of 2014 have left over one million Iraqi widows. Many of the women are Yazidi. Their husbands have been murdered in the cruelest ways imaginable and the women have been personally subjected to terrible violence, including rape and torture.
The poverty and discrimination endured by widowed women is often ignored and forgotten by both the international and local media and politicians. Their terrible suffering is very rarely acknowledged. The 2015 Global Widows Report highlights the invisibility of widows' issues: "there is no group more affected by the sin of omission than widows. They are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women's poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last twenty-five years".
My charity, The AMAR Foundation, is working to support Iraq's most vulnerable communities, including widows and their children, supplying them with emergency aid, healthcare and education. We run a Widows Empowerment Programme helping women to acquire the skills necessary to support their families and this Ramadan we are carrying out an appeal that aims to raise enough funds to give Iraqis in need, including widows and their children, vital food boxes.
I see first-hand on my frequent visits to Dohuk, Baghdad and Basra how widows in war are doubly afflicted. Not only do they have to battle extreme poverty and loss, but they also have to deal with restrictions on their freedom of movement and the possibility of sexual abuse. Women in camps have faced physical assault, exploitation and harassment, and are at risk of sex trafficking and modern-day slavery.
Dr Ali Muthanna, AMAR's Iraq Regional Manager, together with his local staff and volunteers work with widows and their children on an almost daily basis. He has spoken with me about the plight of Iraq's widows at length. He tells me that widows in Iraq face huge challenges. "The stress they are under is detrimental to their physical and mental health," explains Dr Ali.
Iraq's patriarchal society means widowed women rarely remarry and they lose the financial and physical security afforded to them by matrimony. They have to overcome these challenges whilst continuing to provide for their children and families, supplying them with food, security and shelter.
The risks to women in Iraq's Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps are incredibly high. Without husbands, they become the breadwinners and their desperation for necessities, including food and medicine for their children, makes them susceptible targets for sexual exploitation.
Our Iraq team recently met one young woman, Samila, a 26-year-old, whose husband died in sectarian violence in the marshlands of Basra. She has three daughters and a son, all under eleven. She said that after her husband was murdered she was obviously devastated and was terribly worried about what the future held for her four children. She did not know how to provide for them. She was desperate to look after them and teach them to be hard-working, useful members of society, to ensure they went to school and to keep them away from the violence.
Once AMAR learned about Samila's story, we immediately went into action, helping her to develop the skills needed to provide for her family. We were able to help her buy a sewing machine, and she now has clients of her own with a steady income giving her peace of mind and a new confidence.
Women like Samila are incredibly brave but they need help. They have suffered insurmountable tragedies and yet they continue to fight for their families.
To help women like Samila, visit appeal.amarfoundation.org