Today I went to an outlying neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad to meet with women from the community. We were meeting with a small group of women to gather information about the community’s needs from the women’s perspectives. We had already met with the head of the community, but oftentimes the women identify different needs and priorities than the community leaders, who tend to be men.
To prepare for the trip, my colleague and I had to dress appropriately. This consisted of black pants, a long tunic top and a head scarf. It is already HOT in Baghdad, and I was sweating before we even left our office. There was a minor crisis in our southern office regarding visa paperwork for a trainer who was coming in from another country which the Baghdad office had to help with, so we got off to a late start. We drove out to the area where we are planning on working, following our transport security procedures – which I won’t detail here for obvious reasons.
Driving into the neighborhood, it was hard to believe that we were still technically in the city of Baghdad. The streets were unpaved and open sewers ran along the main street. There was trash everywhere and small square cement homes were crowded together along the almost overflowing sewers and the dusty road. We turned down a narrow alley and arrived at the home of our hosts.
The house was an unimposing cement square situated inside a cement perimeter. A donkey was standing outside the cement wall, calming observing our approach. Inside we found a dusty courtyard with about 7 children ranging from 11 to 3 years old, a toy car for children to ride on and two small buildings. A man, his wife (the hosts) and two other women were waiting for us. We were led into a smallish rectangular room with a television, carpets, several pillows to sit on and a fan. The children weren’t at all shy, and stared at us from one side of the rectangle. One of the girls had animated brown eyes and was wearing a lime green training hijab – a head scarf with elastic around the part that frames her face (I could use one of those).
We arrayed ourselves among the cushions, drank soda (instead of the traditional tea) and talked about the community’s needs. Because our translator was a man, the host stayed with us, even though the women were the focus of the meeting.
The biggest problems they identified were unemployment, lack of safe play area for the children and poor local healthcare. Apparently the local midwives cost more than traveling to the closest hospital, which is far away if you need immediate assistance – like if you are in labor and the kid isn’t going to wait for you to drive to the hospital…Of the women interviewed, one had never attended school, one had completed the 4th grade, and one had finished 6th grade. The community has intermittent electricity, terrible public waste disposal and questionable water quality. They say the quality of the schooling is poor, and that girls tend to stop attending between 6th-8th grades. The woman who had never attended school had difficulty telling us how many members there were in her household because she could not count high enough. Unemployment was estimated to be around 40%.
As we were leaving (we had stayed longer than intended) we heard the pop-pop-pop of gunshots. We got into the car and waved goodbye to the children. On our way out of the neighborhood we passed a big convoy of cars celebrating a wedding – and probably the source of the gunfire. Everyone in the cars were playing music and dancing, with men hanging out of passenger seat windows with video cameras and music blaring.
It was a good day.