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US Announces Initiatives to Raise Status of Women in Iraq - 2004-03-09

To mark International Women's Day, the United States has announced two initiatives to raise the status of women in Iraq.

At a U.N.-sponsored luncheon Monday, Robin Raphel, the U.S. State Department's Coordinator for Iraq Reconstruction, outlined the two new programs. "To celebrate today, International Women's Day, Secretary (of State Colin) Powell has announced a $10 million Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative and has inaugurated the Iraqi Women's Network," he said.

The initiative will set up workshops to teach Iraqi women all aspects of a civil society. The network will bring together prominent American and Iraqi leaders in non-governmental organizations and businesses.

Judith Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent organization of scholars, welcomed the signing of the Iraqi interim constitution earlier Monday, which calls for women to hold one quarter of the seats in the Iraqi legislature. She added that the participants at the signing ceremony saluted women, in honor of the date.

"International Women's Day and the signing (of the constitution) in Iraq are very important events, but they are the beginning of the beginning -- not the middle, not the end. There is so much more to be done," he said.

Some of the remaining obstacles outlined by Iraqi exile Katrine Michael include lack of political education for Iraqi women and traditional prejudices against women in Iraqi society.

"We need to find some mechanism, some tools, to bring out Iraqi women to vote," he said. "Otherwise, the mentality of our people -- they are going to leave women at home. They are not going to let them vote."

Another fear was voiced by Rend Rahim, the top Iraqi representative to the United States. Ms. Rahim pointed out that she and the three women on the 25 member Iraqi Governing Council were all appointed by men, who still dominate Iraqi politics.

"We are going to come up to national elections in January," he said. "And my greatest fear is that the aspired-to number of 25-percent will be reached, but by women candidates who are put forward by men in order to conform to the agendas that men select."

Ms. Rahim adds that she is worried that there is not enough time before the January elections to create the dynamics for independent women candidates.

Security is another concern, according to Johanna Mendelson-Forman, of the United Nations Foundation, which was set up in 1997 with a $1 billion donation from businessman Ted Turner. Ms. Mendelson-Forman warns that a lack of basic safety will keep large numbers of Iraqis, and women especially, away from the polls.

"If there isn't an ability for people to walk out on the streets without getting beat on the head or shot, I think participation will continue to be a factor that we have to question," he said.

Anita Sharma of the international research group the Woodrow Wilson Center says although Iraqi women face an uphill climb, they can look elsewhere around the world for inspiration.

"In East Timor, without the use of quotas, women make up 27 percent of those elected to the constituent assembly, which drafted the constitution that includes provisions recognizing the full equality of men and women before the law," he said.

Ms. Sharma added that in Rwanda, women make up 49-percent of the lower house of parliament.