Monday, March 8, 2010

Purple Fingers!

International Women's Day

I've pasted below an email I sent out to our staff today on International Women's Day.

Dear Team,

I’m writing to you today to wish you all a Happy International Women’s Day. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1975 – 35 years ago. The political and social landscape of the world we inhabit has changed dramatically in the last 35 years – old countries have disappeared and new ones have been created; the internet and other technologies have transformed the way we work and live; and the role of women has grown and changed all over the world.

This year, the United Nations selected “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities” for the International Women’s Day theme. In Iraq, this is a theme we can celebrate proudly. Article 14 of the Iraqi constitution declares that, “Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status.” Iraqi women represent 25% of members of parliament - they vote, they work and they have found ways to survive and maintain their families during the very difficult last seven years. Iraqi women have not made these strides alone – each of these achievements was accomplished with the support of Iraqi men.

Our Women’s Awareness and Inclusion program in the south and our Protecting Women through Education programs in north and central Iraq are examples of how we are supporting equal rights and equal opportunities. Access to basic education is a constitutional right for both Iraqi men and women. It is also one of the first steps towards helping women to recognize and access other opportunities.

In my opinion, celebrating International Women’s Day is not about separating women from men. It’s about taking a moment to recognize that women all over the world frequently struggle to survive, to care for their families and to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities in environments that don’t provide them access to their basic needs and rights. It is about recognizing that the barriers women struggle against to achieve those basic needs and rights are often different from the barriers that men face. To me, it is about understanding that it will take the efforts of both men and women to level the playing field for our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

Please, take a moment today to recognize the women you work with, the women in your families and in your communities. Also acknowledge the men who support the women in your workplace, in your families and in your communities. It is only by working together that men and women throughout the world will achieve equal opportunities and rights for all people.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Parliamentary Elections in Baghdad

This morning started for me at 6:45 am. That’s when I heard the first mortar. I laid in bed for a minute, not sure if I’d heard what I thought I’d heard. Then I heard two more. By the time I’d gotten out of bed, found my sneakers and made it downstairs I’d heard two more. After opening all the windows in the office, I headed out to watchmen shack to check on the situation – they said there’d been nine explosions so far. The polls opened at 7am. Within another half hour the smell of sulfur from the explosions hung in the air. The mortaring continued consistently for about four hours before letting up around 11 am. I heard between 30 and 50 explosions today, at least, and those were just the ones in ear shot from my location.

News reports say that at least some of the explosions were sound grenades being detonated to scare people away from polling stations. Latest reports say 38 people were killed and more than 50 wounded between the mortars and IEDs. But people still voted. Iraqis still left their homes and went to their polling stations because they can’t imagine continuing to live like this, and at least some Iraqi’s see voting as a legitimate way to change the status quo.

I don’t know if the election results will be recognized as legitimate, or if the elected politicians will be able to form a new government quickly enough to avoid a potentially disastrous power vacuum. I do know that millions of Iraqis showed incredible courage today by going out and voting, especially in Baghdad, which was the hardest hit area today.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Iraqi women learn about democracy before parliamentary elections

Living and working in Baghdad these days seems to be about waiting. People are waiting to see if there will be violence during the elections, waiting to see the results of the elections on March 7th, and waiting to see if those results will be accepted peacefully or if the country will be plunged back into conflict.

Mercy Corps is committed to staying in Iraq and helping the people who need help the most, which means working in places like Sadr City, Diyala and Kirkuk. In preparation for the elections, we launched a series of lectures in our women’s literacy centers on Democracy, Governance and Elections in nine governorates, reaching about 15,000 illiterate women. We didn’t just want to teach women how to vote - we wanted to explain to them what happens when they vote and how the Iraqi democracy is designed to function.

Yesterday, we got the results back from the pre- and post- tests that we did with a sample of women who participated in the Democracy lectures in four governorates in southern Iraq. The results are outstanding. In ThiQar province, only 39.9% of the women surveyed before the lecture thought that in a democracy more than one person is involved in decision making. After the lecture, 81.6% of the women understood that in democracy decisions should be made by the people.

In Muthana governorate, only 69% of the women thought that boys and girls had equal rights to education before the lecture, but 95.9% understood that boys and girls have the same right to education during the post test. When women understand that their daughters and sons both have the right to receive an education they are more likely to advocate for that right on behalf of their children.

While this is only a small step in encouraging women’s participation in Iraq’s democracy, I think it’s an important one. International Women’s Day is on March 8th, and I can’t think of a more fitting contribution than helping Iraqi women vote in their elections.