Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 12:18 UK

Iraqi widows yearn for new lives

Iraqi widows at cemetery
Some widows hope to remarry one day

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

Nearly three decades of war, brutal totalitarianism, invasion, occupation and insurgency in Iraq have left behind at least a million widows - and several million children without fathers.

That was the conservative estimate earlier in 2009 by Iraq's acting minister for women's affairs, Narmeen Othman. She believes there may even be two million widows.

Under Saddam Hussein, despite the brutality of his regime towards so many of Iraq's people, war widows were looked after by the state. Now, they are mostly hidden and vulnerable.

It's been called Iraq's cultural time bomb.

Close to the surface of the new normality here, there are painful memories, and a yearning for lost loved ones.

And - there's anxiety about looking after the children when the breadwinner has gone.

Success story

At the al-Ethar charity in west Baghdad, donations from well-wishers help support families without fathers. They also help to find husbands for women who want to remarry.

The director, Hana Badrani, told me she has more than 2,000 widows on her books, with a total of 7,000 children whose fathers have been killed. Most of the widows do not have any qualifications to help them get work. They're trapped.

She introduced me to one of their success stories - Iman and Hussein. Iman's husband was shot dead two years ago. She has now re-married - and she and Hussein have a little boy called Yussef, who kept on catching my eye and grinning.

Hussein told me: "Marrying a widow is good for the man and for the children."

Iraqi widow
Umm Fatima's husband was shot dead at a petrol station

Iman says her friends encouraged her to get married again.

Hussein's mother Latife encouraged her too: "All these widows," she said. "All these children. Who else is going to take care of them?"

I also met Umm Fatima - a young widow who started to sob when I asked her how her four children were coping. Their father Ahmad was shot dead nearly three years ago by men wearing military uniforms. He'd simply been refuelling his taxi cab when they killed him.

Umm Fatima has lost a husband and the family income.

She believes it's very important for her and for the children that she re-marries. "A father for them would make us all more secure," she told me - financially, and emotionally.

"They miss their dad," she went on. "And when they meet men sometimes, they want them to give them a hug."

Social traditions

But an Iraqi campaigner for women's independence, Hanaa Edwar, questions the assumption that a widow would be better off re-marrying.

"For her dignity as a human being," she said. "Women should feel they are capable of doing what men can do. They can protect their children without a man in the family.

"In this society where there are tough tribal traditions," she added. "We have to try to build a new look for women in Iraq."

Hanaa Edwar is Christian. I wondered what she would say to Muslims who might argue that their social and religious traditions are none of her business.

"I don't care about that really," she responded. "I consider myself a human being. I don't bother myself with religions, I am an Iraqi citizen. And, of course, I am an international human being."

But there are still numerous women here - and their children - who yearn for a new husband. And a new father.

One day, I sat with a widow, Umm Ahmed, and her three-year-old daughter Sara. Umm Ahmed told me, in a very matter-of-fact way, that her husband had been shot dead, simply walking down the street.

When her mother had finished speaking, Sara looked up at me and said: "Please stay with us."

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