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Sat 18 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Women will help rebuild Iraq

At the start of this year, Iraqis voted in provincial elections to practice our role in democracy. We Iraqis have paid bitterly for this democracy, and we are still paying for it.

Women will help rebuild Iraq

At the start of this year, Iraqis voted in provincial elections to practice our role in democracy. We Iraqis have paid bitterly for this democracy, and we are still paying for it.

The price has been particularly high for women and the failure to promote and protect women in earnest continues to frustrate us. For example, the 25 percent quota for women in parliament does not apply to provincial councils, and the state minister for Women's Affairs resigned after the already impossibly tight budget was slashed by 80 percent.

In the weeks leading up to the election, you heard a lot of Iraqis who said "we are not going to vote this time, we got nothing from the previous one, why should we go? The results have already determined."

I was one of these voices, but when the election came, I joined the roughly 51 percent of Iraqis who went to the polls to cast my vote.

You may ask why? The simple reply is that we feel it is our duty and our right to vote. It is a lesson and message to the next generation to go and vote and participate in forming our country whatever the cost. We are not working for ourselves now, we are working for our children and their children. Our actions are setting changes in motion that we might not be able to see for some time, but even now we can feel something beginning to take shape.

The women I work with have a lot of stories about how they became a widow or an orphan. Some have no support at all and they tell me how hard their struggle is in communities like ours.

But when I ask them to draw or paint anything they wish on any subject at all, not a single one of them draws anything about her suffering or the sad past she comes from. Their paintings are amazing and wonderful, full of colours and flowers and people building homes and children sitting in schools. They even paint about the elections and these are indeed some of my favourites.

When I speak with them to hear their stories I hide my tears. I hear them speaking proudly and looking to the future and their children's future. They tell me they want to send a message to all women that we are strong and able to face the difficulties, we are going to learn and teach our kids to be the best for the country. This is how women are re-knitting the social fabric of their communities, and building peace in Iraq from the ground up.

A year ago, public campaigns in parts of my country threatened women with violence if they dared to wear too much make-up or did not wear a veil when they left the house. But on election day, there were nearly 4,000 women candidates on the ballot. Regardless of the results, we know that this is how change will begin, and slowly gather momentum.

Iraq is in a healing process. We got the infection and we are seeking the cure. We hope that we will get it right and, in our way, be healthy again and able to build a better life. What has happened is over and we want to learn from our lessons and not repeat mistakes.

Maybe the building process is still so slow that progress cannot yet be seen. But we are working very hard, especially on relations with each other, because we cannot rebuild the country until we can get along. We don't want to build the country on hate or untrue feelings.

Instead, we want the work we are doing now to last forever because this time it is not only build by the blood of the Iraqis but with their belief in and love for each other.

We must let the past go, and think about the present and the future. I don't think that we Iraqis will accept oppression but rather use all the tools we have to face down tyranny. We just need time to get up and stand on our feet again.

What is happening now will end. I go out to the street and see the officer and his efforts to make traffic flow easier. I know there are not many of him at the moment but as long as I am seeing one in each area and hear people say that he is good and is doing a great job, I know the good seed is still in us and will grow to become the rule rather than the exception.

It is our duty to make sure that women are part of this. And this is why we had to go and vote. Women's issues are society's issues and stronger women build stronger nations.

Irtiqa Faris is the Women for Women International country director in Iraq. Women for Women International supports women in conflict-affected regions with financial and emotional aid, job-skills training, rights education and small business assistance so they can rebuild their lives. www.womenforwomen.org.

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