Halima Dakhil lost her husband in the sectarian slaughter that engulfed Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and now spends her days tearful and scared, knowing her $250 monthly wage won't pay the rent and feed five children.
One of an estimated 2 million women who are primary breadwinners in Iraq, Dakhil is but one face of the humanitarian crisis left behind as US forces withdraw from Iraq nearly nine years after toppling dictator Saddam Hussein.
Rent takes $210 of her monthly earning as a cleaner in a medical clinic. She depends mainly on the kindness of neighbours and other donors to feed her family.
"When my husband was killed in 2006, my youngest child, Ridha, was only a toddler," said Dakhil, wiping away her tears with her abaya, as Ridha stood by her side.
"I took on the role of both mother and father. I support them and pay the rent. The rent is destroying me."
Dakhil said militants beheaded her husband, along with his brother and nephew, as they traveled to sell a car and buy another in Diyala province, a centre of ethnic and sectarian strife east of Baghdad.
In a cruel irony, Dakhil's spouse, a Sunni, was killed by Sunni militants who thought he was a Shi'ite because his ID badge was issued in the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, she said.
Dakhil, herself a Shi'ite, she was displaced shortly after her husband's death from their Sunni area in northern Baghdad to Sadr City, with no money, no furniture and no family support.
As Iraq emerges from nearly nine years of what many here think of as an occupation by US forces, and the decades of Saddam's reign before, it faces an uphill battle to help the poor, the wounded, the widowed and others scarred by war.
"I wish the war never happened and my husband was still alive. What is his fault? What is the fault of the innocent people?" said Dakhil, who is raising four boys and a girl.
Tens of thousands of men - soldiers, police, insurgent fighters and civilians - have died in bombings, tit-for-tat sectarian slaughter and other violence during a war that has killed more than 100,000 Iraqis, by some estimates.
Minister of Women's Affairs Ibtihal Gasid al-Zaidi estimates there may be 2 million women breadwinners in Iraq, most of them widows of the 2003 US-led invasion and the sectarian conflict that followed, the first Gulf war or the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
The humanitarian group Relief International estimates there may be 1.5 million widows, nearly 10 percent of the female population. The International Committee of the Red Cross said there are more than 1 million women leading households in Iraq.
"The ICRC sees women-headed households as among the most vulnerable in Iraq today," the group said.
Zaidi said 23 percent of oil-rich Iraq's estimated 30 million people, around 7 million, live under the poverty line and more than half are women.
Many widows struggle with the realities of their new lives; raising children alone, with little money or family support.
Article continues on next page…