‘It’s difficult to be a working woman in a tribal society’

In parts of Iraq, being a female aid worker is an act of defiance. Rewaq Fadel began her career as a volunteer in Baghdad’s poorest neighbourhoods. Today, she oversees more than 650 female volunteers, through AMAR International Charitable Foundation, risking her safety to offer aid to the country’s most vulnerable women. Here, she takes Philanthropy Age through her day

From the beginning, volunteer work appealed to me more than a normal job with an income. Like many Iraqi women, I was unemployed after graduation. So in 2008, I began work as a health volunteer at a medical centre close to my home. It’s a poor area, and the concept of unpaid work was very new in Iraq, but it was something I wanted to do.

I worked with 20 other women volunteers, mostly on the outskirts of Baghdad. I visited 50 families each week, always to deliver information about healthcare. These areas have poor infrastructure, and residents have little access to medical care. Children often wouldn’t be vaccinated, and pregnant women would go without advice. Iraq has faced hard times, particularly between 2003 and 2007, and it has left the country and so many of its people in dire need.

A year later, I began overseeing AMAR’s national Women Health Volunteer scheme. Today, I am in charge of around 650 female volunteers from Dohuk to Basra, and eight social centres. It’s not easy for any of us; it’s particularly difficult to be a working woman in a tribal society, especially with such long hours. I am married with two children, and I am often absent from home.

I live in the capital and my day starts in the early hours, as I try to beat the traffic. From the AMAR office, we recruit and train the volunteers in basic medicine, hygiene and healthcare. Their role is to promote good health practices, and spot any signs of sickness, such as a jaundiced baby or the start of a cholera outbreak.

The days are varied. One day I will be in Baghdad, others find me travelling – to Basra, Babil governorate, Najaf, Kabala, or to Irbil in Kurdistan. We still can’t reach all the areas we’d like to because of security risks. In some regions, there are groups that are opposed to the work we do and want to disrupt it.

Over the years, we’ve become entwined with the families we visit. Through our volunteers, we learn which families need legal, health, social or educational support. We saw early on that many of the women needed legal assistance, so we launched an initiative to help educate them about their rights.

It was also clear that, with the number of vulnerable, poor widows and divorcees, these women needed to find work. Many faced difficult social situations, where tribal constraints meant they were not able to leave the house or find work. Through AMAR, we created women-only social centres for training and education. They can learn to sew, take part in beauty and cosmetics training, literacy courses, and – for those with basic schooling – computer training so they can get jobs.

We’ve had many success stories. One woman came from one of the eastern governorates to train as a tailor. Her husband was killed during the conflict and she was left to care for her five children and her husband’s parents. Now she is among the most skilled tailors and works as a trainer to other women in a Baghdad centre. She has been able to keep all five of her children in school. Before, they didn’t even have a home.

What keeps me awake at night is knowing there are still women and girls we haven’t reached yet

The medical support we provide moves me the most. I recall meeting three sisters who had been forced to leave their home aged 20, 15 and 9-years-old. They had lost their mother during a bombing campaign and each had suffered terrible injuries. I lived with them for six months and I felt like I was a mother to them, they meant so much to me. We were able to help one girl get prosthetic legs and one to get surgery to repair her ruptured intestines. Life is so much better for them now.

Psychologically, the work is very tough, especially when working with displaced Yazidi women. Girls as young as 7 or 8 are victims of rape, killing and displacement. How can that not take a toll on you?

What keeps me awake at night is knowing there are still women and girls we haven’t reached yet, who need help. Women in remote, dangerous areas, who might be victims of domestic violence, or in need of legal assistance. My goal is to find them, and to improve their situation a little. Until my last day, I will keep trying for them.