'You get hooked when you see the difference you can make'

Women for Women International provides support for women in war and post-war regions. Over the course of the past decade, the organisation has enabled more than 6,500 disadvantaged women in Iraq alone to make a living and rebuild their lives. Mohanad Tawfiq, a manager at the charity’s office in Baghdad, describes a typical day at work

A strong cup of coffee at 8am gives me the clarity of mind to start a day at work. I spend the first half hour or so responding to emails from our headquarters, other NGOs we cooperate with, or my colleagues, as well as the different institutions we deal with such as microfinance providers. My main duty is to help the women who complete our training programme to use the skills we give them to generate income on their own and support their children. I do, however, get involved in various aspects of serving these women, along with nearly 40 staff members and a dozen or so instructors.

At around 10am I start my fieldwork with the daily tour to the training centres we run: three in the capital, Baghdad, and one in the city of Karbala. This is where Women for Women offers assistance to some of Iraq’s most disadvantaged mothers and single women. Many have lost their source of income, have no work skills, and are unable to provide the basic necessities of life for their children or themselves. We have designed and developed a one-year training programme for these women.

The programme gives them the skills, knowledge, confidence, as well as emotional and financial support, to start a small business from home. It is funded by donations that come mainly from our ‘Sponsor a Sister’ campaign, which appeals to women around the world to sponsor a woman in Iraq for a year at a cost of $30 each month. From this, $20 covers the training cost and $10 is given in cash to the participant as financial assistance. Although it’s a small sum, we encourage them to save a little, if they can, to be able to buy the equipment they will need at the end of the programme to start a business.

The programme requires participants to attend lectures and training sessions twice a month for one year. The sessions run for a duration of one and a half hours each, and build up to five and a half hours as more modules are added. The modules cover life skills, business skills and also vocational skills. Life skills is probably the most important and comprehensive module because it helps them build their personalities, teaching them their legal rights, how to interact with the community, think independently, make decisions and take control of their lives as active participants in their communities.

The module also covers the principles and practices for sustainable income, health and wellbeing, and networking. Along the way, we give them all the emotional support and guidance to ensure they’re ready to lead a successful life on their own. The vocational skills we offer them, as per their preference, vary from tailoring and embroidery to food processing, candlemaking and several others that we introduce as we identify new market opportunities. The third module gives them all the basic business skills required to run a small enterprise from home or a group cooperative – when two or more of our graduates pool their resources into one enterprise – from building a product to pricing, accounting, marketing and customer care.

The women receive a certificate when they complete the programme. However this does not necessarily mean they will be able to start an enterprise immediately, as many of them lack the required seed money. Banks or other institutions that offer microloans or microfinance in Iraq often require a collateral or a guarantee for payments from a government employee, which is beyond the means of these women. We intercede on their behalf to convince the loan provider of the high potential for these women to pay the money back. It is not an easy thing to do, not to mention that some women don’t trust banks or hold that paying interest is ‘haram’ or ‘un-Islamic’. We refer those who don’t get a loan to other NGOs that may provide them with a donation.

Some women do manage to help themselves through savings, and one example is that of Awham. Her husband lost his job in 2010 due to a disabling sickness. She was almost 40 years old, had never worked in her life and had no skills, yet she had to make an income to support her husband and four children. A friend tipped her about Women for Women and she joined our programme. A hard worker and always ready to help others,

Awham was a very positive influence on her peers. She took up tailoring and when she graduated she had saved enough money from the $10 monthly support to buy herself a sewing machine. She succeeded in pulling herself and her family from destitution. Awham made many friends among our staff and other participants, and she volunteered whenever she could to assist in the centre and help new participants. She was so good that we made her an instructor – a part time job that helps to further supplement the tailoring business that she runs from her home.

Out in the field, we need to make sure that participants are building the desired business and vocational skills. I spend most of my tour of the centres meeting with instructors, administrators and participants, dealing with many issues, from security and administrative coordination to checking on participants that fail to appear for training. The women who participate in our programme range in age between 18 and 55, and their skillsets span from being illiterate to having completed their secondary school education. These wide ranges make it much more difficult to train them in one class and give them uniform skills at the end of the programme. But it is so endearing to see our efforts paying off when all or most of a group blends in and starts to make an extra effort to overcome psychological and other inhibitions to better communicate and learn.

I usually go home at 3pm to my wife and parents, and carry on with my private life. However, when everyone is asleep at around midnight, I end my day as I started it: going through my emails. When the time you spend at work is about caring for the socially excluded, you get hooked – especially when you see the difference you can make. What we are doing has a ripple effect: the opportunity we give to almost every woman is multiplied by the number of children she has, who are saved from poverty and a grim future."