News from the Front
2-1 Cavalry Division's Kirkuk Province Women's Initiative: Promoting
Figures 1a and 1b. CPTs Barrett (Figure 1a) and Damassia (Figure 1b),
provide meeting instruction to the Kirkuk Provincial Council
Women's Committee members and Iraqi women's NGOs.
As the Committee and NGOs began to synergize; they agreed on the areas they wanted to affect change by identifying several goals. One of the goals was to ensure female detainees were being treated well in the detention facilities. Through the help of the Iraqi Security Forces, a contingent of Committee members visited the detention facilities and provided the female detainees with companionship and hygiene kits. In addition, the NGOs conducted a survey throughout the province and determined the biggest issues females faced and how they might affect positive change for the future. The survey results showed the two main areas of concern were social and economic.
Figures 2a and 2b. Iraqi NGOs conducting an assessment survey
Though the new Iraqi Constitution guarantees women's rights, thousands of years of oppression cannot be reversed overnight. Many Iraqi women are unaware of their new constitutional rights and still face high rates of domestic violence, suicide, and illiteracy. Economically, women face high rates of unemployment and daunting challenges when trying to start a small business.
Though the Division wanted to see large construction projects demonstrating U.S. commitment to the women's initiative campaign, CPTs Barrett and Damassia and Sergeant First Class (SFC) Betty Ortega (3-82 Field Artillery [FA] S-9 [civil-military operations]) realized the greatest effect was going to be their capacity building with the Iraqi women. Change would not come with a new building or spending large amounts of money attempting to fix a problem, but instead with small targeted programs and helping the Iraqi women build the necessary skill sets to affect change on their own through other provincial councils and methodologies. Through their capacity building classes, the Iraqi women's NGOs developed their plans and started to bring about change.
To address the lack of knowledge of their new constitutional rights, one of the NGOs was able to secure meeting space and female lawyers to conduct women's rights awareness meetings. These meetings are now a regular occurrence in Kirkuk City.
To combat the high rate of illiteracy among the Iraqi women, another NGO approached the Kirkuk Provincial Deputy General of Education with a plan to use the adult illiteracy centers at night specifically for a women's program. Through innovative marketing ideas derived at the women's NGO workgroup meetings, the women's literacy classes have been well attended and are a fixture in Kirkuk City. Several of the women's committee members also serve on the provincial education committee and were able to secure funds and teachers for the women's literacy campaign. Combating illiteracy helps to improve the social and economic life of the women. Change is occurring slowly, one step at a time, but most importantly through the actions and plans of the local Iraqi women.
In an attempt to promote better economic opportunities for the Iraqi women, 3-82 FA, under the command of LTC Terry Cook, empowered SFC Ortega to search out micro grant opportunities for Iraqi women. SFC Ortega enlisted the help of the local NGOs to find female-owned businesses in need of working capital. Through her persistent work, SFC Ortega provided 18 of micro grants worth approximately $64,000 that provided 30 long-term jobs. Follow up visits confirmed the money was spent according to their plan and they have hired additional long-term female workers. Through the illiteracy program and a few well-placed micro grants, positive change is occurring for women in the Kirkuk Province.
Figures 3a and 3b. A Kirkuk City micro grant recipient
Throughout the summer months, the Committee and NGOs continued to gain momentum, and the strict ethnic divisions began to blur as participants often arrived early to socialize. Leadership positions rotated without conflict, and goals were planned and acted upon. Though the women's committee lacked a working budget, the women were affecting change through knowledge and opportunities.
SFC Ortega was tasked to head up a women's equality conference on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Warrior celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted suffrage rights to women in 1920. SFC Ortega used this opportunity to invite 16 female Iraqi Committee members to participate in the celebration. There were several U.S. female speakers who highlighted the great strides in women's rights. The speakers reassured the Iraqi guests that change takes time, but through perseverance they can make a difference. Ala Noori Talabani, a local influential Iraqi, gave a short speech on how much she appreciated the support and guidance given to the Committee and NGOs as they strive to improve the lives of women in Kirkuk Province. All attendees were impressed on how the U.S. Army celebrated women's equality day and the support provided by their male counterparts. The speakers were additional role models for the Iraqi women to emulate.
Figures 4a and 4b. Women's Equality Day celebration at FOB Warrior
The culminating event for the 2-1 CD women's initiative was the Kirkuk women's seminar held at the government center on November 5, 2009. This seminar was broadcast on local television and addressed the findings of the of the women's survey and how the 14 NGOs were affecting change for women in the community. The event was entirely planned and executed by the Iraqi women; CPTs Barrett and Damassia and SFC Ortega quietly sat in the back admiring the positive transformation that occurred in just six months.
Figure 5a and 5b. Kirkuk Women's Seminar
As 2-1 CD prepares to rotate out, the foundation is already in place for the new U.S. unit to continue to mentor and advise from the sidelines to ensure the Committee remains focused on its goals. Furthermore, inviting local Iraqi women to women's leadership and equality conferences on the FOB helps to solidify the positive goals that can be achieved over time. The Iraqi women are eager to learn and are planning even more women's initiatives to better the lives of Iraqi women.
When developing a women's initiative program in a Middle Eastern country, one needs to temper their expectations. The Army idiom of "crawl, walk, run" is very applicable when initiating new women's initiatives in a historically male-dominated society. CPT Damassia, CPT Barrett, and SFC Ortega tempered their approach and focused on capacity building. This capacity-building effort will continue to empower the Iraqi women as they develop skill sets to make future gains through their increased knowledge of how to organize and plan a meeting, set objectives/goals, and ultimately achieve their goals.
Figure 6. The agents of change (pictured from left to right):
CPT Kimi Damassia, CPT Erin Barrett, Helen (a local Iraqi), and SFC Betty Ortega.
Through the hard work and commitment of the above U.S. Army Soldiers, the Kirkuk Provincial Council Women's Committee and Iraqi women's NGOs blossomed from directionless and divided organizations and transformed into one team that is all-inclusive, focused, and has the foundation to provide change that will continue to improve the lives of women in Kirkuk Province.