Women's centre in Iraq helps women "knit" their lives back together

26 March 2018
Author: UNFPA
Haneen volunteers at a UNFPA-supported women's centre in Debaga camp. © UNFPA Iraq
Haneen volunteers at a UNFPA-supported women's centre in Debaga camp. © UNFPA Iraq

DEBAGA, Iraq – Three years ago, conflict forced Haneen Ali* to flee her home in Mosul, in northern Iraq. With her parents, she hiked through minefields before finding safety in the Debaga camp.

“The journey was long and tiring,” said Ms. Ali, now 22. “I had to leave my life behind to start a new one at a camp.”

Since 2014, the crisis in Iraq has forced more than 2.3 million people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. Violence, poverty and uncertainty continue to uproot communities. Between 12 January and 24 March of this year, some 5,597 displaced families arrived in the Mosul camps. 

But Ms. Ali has refused to let these challenges derail her ambitions.

She tried to continue her studies, reading books to educate herself. “I couldn’t just give up,” she said. “Learning from a tent made me feel strong. I felt that I could do much more than just sit around.”

Ms. Ali’s desire for more opportunities brought her to a UNFPA-supported women’s centre run by partner Al-Mesallah. 

UNFPA supports 140 such centres throughout Iraq. These facilities offer classes in art, drama and handicrafts, and they refer women and girls to psychosocial support, health facilities and other care.

Teaching and listening

At the women’s centre, Ms. Ali realized she could put her skills to use, not only to learn but to teach as well.

“I knew how to sew from my mother. I used to watch her when I was a child, and I grew up helping her knit some clothes for my siblings,” she said.

She applied to volunteer as a sewing trainer. She was immediately accepted for this responsibility.

Hundreds of women routinely visit the centre to take part in its recreational activities. Many are still recovering from the extreme stress of the conflict and displacement. Others have experienced gender-based violence, which can increase during humanitarian crises.

The women’s centre allows these survivors to seek help and build a sense of community. Ms. Ali has received training that enables her to offer a safe space for listening and sharing. 

“These women gather as friends do in a neighbourhood, a casual ladies’ get-together over sewing pieces of clothing,” she said. “Some, however, come with deeper pains. For them sewing this piece of cloth feels like knitting their own lives together and heal their wounds.”

Touching lives

In addition to recreational activities, the women’s centre also provides psychosocial support services, as well as information about addressing and finding help for sexual harassment, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence.

Ms. Ali also supports these sessions.

Today, Ms. Ali has touched the lives of hundreds of young women, and she has become one of the most trusted figures in the centre.

She says that her role as a teacher is actually something even bigger.

“It is not about sewing, to be honest,” she said. “These women attend the sessions I give looking for a friend, for an escape, for a place where they can forget their miseries and feel useful.”

*Name changed for protection and privacy

Population : 40.2 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24

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