Hurt by the west

Observations on women in Iraq

Yasmin is back from Baghdad: "It's terrible," she tells our group. "I listen to women's stories and burst into tears." We formed our group almost two years ago: Iraqi and non-Iraqi women living in the UK who campaign against the sanctions that the UN claims have cost over a million Iraqi lives - including up to 5,000 children a month. During the Gulf war, we hardly ever heard the voices of ordinary Iraqis, which perhaps made the war seem more "acceptable". With another attack looming, we went to Baghdad as we wanted to hear some Iraqi women's stories.

Um Zaman stands outside a mini-market. Dignified and neat in black and wearing a headscarf, she doesn't look like a beggar. "I'm not begging. I just need food for my daughter. If I get enough for the day, I'll go home." As a teacher, Um Zaman earned 3,000 dinars a month, now not enough even for transport to work and back. Here, she can make 10,000 a day.

Yasmin asks if her daughter is begging, too. "May I go blind if I ever allow my daughter to beg. No, she's in school and I'll do whatever I can do to keep her there."

The government has recently been arresting beggars and peddlers to get them off the streets. But they come back: women selling handmade loofahs and rusty needles and children banging on car windows with offers of tobacco and chewing-gum. It's a familiar scene in cities of the developing world. But Iraq could have been different. With the rise in oil prices, the 1970s and 1980s saw an economic boom, rapid development and an expanding middle class. This occurred despite the indisputable political repression. Women went to work in large numbers - in education, health and government. There was free childcare and transport. However, sanctions have destroyed the economy: while prices soar, public-sector salaries have remained fixed.

Um Zaman eloped with her husband and settled in Baghdad. Her family disowned her, but the young couple managed. He worked in a factory and she taught school. Then he was called up to fight in the war against Iran. He died when a grenade exploded in his face as he went to fetch water for his company. Because he didn't die in combat, Um Zaman never got his full martyr's pension.

It's not only war widows who find themselves without husbands. Many men leave the country to try to find ways of supporting their families. Among the poor, family planning has become a source of tension. Before the Iran war, contraceptives were legal and available, but they were banned in an effort to compensate for the lives lost during the war. Contraceptives are still unavailable; many women risk illegal backstreet abortions, and some abandon their babies because they are too poor to keep them.

Dr Janan Hassan, a pediatrician at Basra Maternity and Children's Hospital, describes other anxieties women have about giving birth. She has studied childhood cancers and birth abnormalities in the hospital over the past seven years. The cancers have increased fivefold since 1991, as have abnormalities: missing eyes, genitalia or even heads. Dr Hassan fears the increases are due to the 300 tons of depleted uranium in warheads used in the carpet-bombing of southern Iraq.

A while ago, Iraqis still had a sense of hope that sanctions might be lifted. Today, they're disheartened and exhausted. But the real terror is the prospect of another war. "We're surviving these sanctions, not living a life exactly, but surviving. But a war would finish our children off." Sana sits close to her husband, twisting a handkerchief in her hands. "Why can't you do something about it, you who live there in Europe?" she asks angrily. "Don't they realise that a war won't hurt him [Saddam Hussein]? It will only hurt us."

Act Together, Women Against Sanctions on Iraq, PO Box 34728,

London N7 6XE