Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Iraq’s War Widows Face Dire Need With Little Aid

Posted in women's rights by allisonkilkenny on February 23, 2009

New York Times

Ahmed Hassan Sharmal, right, and his extended family of 30, including three war widows, are forced to share only two trailers. (Johan Spanner for The New York Times)

Ahmed Hassan Sharmal, right, and his extended family of 30, including three war widows, are forced to share only two trailers. (Johan Spanner for The New York Times)

BAGHDAD — Her twin sisters were killed trying to flee Falluja in 2004. Then her husband was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad just after she had become pregnant. When her own twins were 5 months old, one was killed by an explosive planted in a Baghdad market.

Now, Nacham Jaleel Kadim, 23, lives with her remaining daughter in a trailer park for war widows and their families in one of the poorest parts of Iraq’s capital.

That makes her one of the lucky ones. The trailer park, called Al Waffa, or “Park of the Grateful,” is among the few aid programs available for Iraq’s estimated 740,000 widows. It houses 750 people.

As the number of widows has swelled during six years of war, their presence on city streets begging for food or as potential recruits by insurgents has become a vexing symbol of the breakdown of Iraqi self-sufficiency.

Women who lost their husbands had once been looked after by an extended support system of family, neighbors and mosques.

But as the war has ground on, government and social service organizations say the women’s needs have come to exceed available help, posing a threat to the stability of the country’s tenuous social structures.

With the economy limping along, dependent almost entirely on the price of crude oil, and the government preoccupied with rebuilding and quelling sectarian violence, officials acknowledge that little is likely to change soon.

“We can’t help everybody,” said Leila Kadim, a managing director in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. “There are too many.”

Among Iraqi women aged 15 to 80, 1 in 11 are estimated to be widows, though officials admit that figure is hardly more than a guess, given the continuing violence and the displacement of millions of people. A United Nations report estimated that during the height of sectarian violence here in 2006, 90 to 100 women were widowed each day.

In large cities like Baghdad, the presence of war widows is difficult to ignore. Cloaked in black abayas, they wade through columns of cars idling at security checkpoints, asking for money or food. They wait in line outside mosques for free blankets, or sift through mounds of garbage piled along the street. Some live with their children in public parks or inside gas station restrooms.

Officials at social service agencies tell of widows coerced into “temporary marriages” — relationships sanctioned by Shiite tradition, often based on sex, which can last from an hour to years — to get financial help from government, religious or tribal leaders.

Other war widows have become prostitutes, and some have joined the insurgency in exchange for steady pay. The Iraqi military estimates that the number of widows who have become suicide bombers may be in the dozens.

In the past several weeks, even as the government has formed commissions to study the problem, it has begun a campaign to arrest beggars and the homeless, including war widows.

The issue has burst into public view in some unusual ways recently. When an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush in December, he shouted that he was doing so on behalf of the war’s widows and orphans. During the campaign for last month’s provincial elections, political rallies featured heart-rending songs of the suffering of widows.

Those sentiments, though, have yet to translate into political action.

Efforts to increase the government stipend for widows — currently about $50 a month and an additional $12 per child — have stalled. By comparison, the price of a five-liter container of gasoline, used for cars as well as home generators, is about $4.

Still, only about 120,000 widows — roughly one in six — receive any state aid, according to government figures. Widows and their advocates say that to receive benefits they must either have political connections or agree to temporary marriages with the powerful men who control the distribution of government funds.

“It is blackmail,” said Samira al-Mosawi, chairwoman of the women’s affairs committee in Parliament. “We have no law to treat this point. Widows don’t need temporary support, but a permanent solution.”

The latest plan, proposed by Mazin al-Shihan, director of the Baghdad Displacement Committee, a city agency, is to pay men to marry widows. “There is no serious effort by the national government to fix this problem, so I presented my own program,” he said.

When asked why the money should not go directly to the women, Mr. Shihan laughed.

“If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely because they are uneducated and they don’t know about budgeting,” he said. “But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives. This is according to our tradition and our laws.”

Abdulalah F. Alafar, who runs the Maryam Establishment for Children charity in Baghdad, said he had become so frustrated by the lack of government support that he had begun to turn away war widows. He said he planned to close his organization entirely this month.

“If the situation progresses, we will be just like India,” he said. Questioning the government’s priorities, he added, “They are busy building public fountains when we don’t have water in the sink.”

The trailer park, in Baghdad’s Al Shaab district, opened four months ago. Its 150 identical aluminum trailers sit in neat rows amid a vast field of puddles, their white exteriors already stained tan by blowing sand.

A short walk down a muddy path from Ms. Kadim’s trailer, Ahmed Hassan Sharmal, 58, and his extended family of 30 are moving into trailer numbers 39 and 40. Three of his daughters-in-law are widows. Fatherless children seem to fill every bit of the trailers’ available space, playing and giggling while their mothers wonder where everyone will sleep.

Mr. Sharmal, a Shiite, lost three sons to sectarian violence in Diyala Province, which was a center of the Sunni insurgency, during a 10-month period in 2006.

One son, a doctor, was killed in a parking garage as he walked to his car. A second died after gunmen sprayed bullets across a field of soccer players. The third, a police officer, was shot in the back of the head while on his way to work.

Jinan, 25, had been married to the doctor. She has no money and little freedom. One of her brothers-in-law, an unemployed former police officer, said he planned to marry her, a match arranged by her in-laws. As he spoke, her 4-year-old son squirmed in her mother-in-law’s lap.

Soon, Jinan will no longer be a widow, but she refuses to look at the man chosen to be her husband. As she hangs her head as if to cry, the conversation continues without her.

Anwar J. Ali and Suadad al-Salhy contributed reporting.

The Invisible War

Posted in women's rights by allisonkilkenny on February 21, 2009

Note from Allison: Unfortunately, Herbert didn’t include a call to action in his otherwise wonderful column. I feel like people will be profoundly moved after reading his words, and they’ll want to help, or post links to where others can donate money to help Congolese women. Here are some charities that take donations for the Congolese victims:

Women for Women International

International Rescue Committee



Bob Herbert

Perhaps we’ve heard so little about them because the crimes are so unspeakable, the evil so profound.

drc_civil_war_congoFor years now, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding bands of soldiers and militias have been waging a war of rape and destruction against women. This sustained campaign of mind-bending atrocities, mostly in the eastern part of the country, has been one of the strategic tools in a wider war that has continued, with varying degrees of intensity, since the 1990s. Millions have been killed.

Women and girls of all ages, from old women to very young children, have been gang-raped, and in many cases their sexual organs have been mutilated. The victims number in the hundreds of thousands. But the world, for the most part, has remained indifferent to their suffering.

“These women are raped in front of their husbands, in front of their children, in front of their parents, in front of their neighbors,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who runs a hospital in Bukavu that treats only the women who have sustained the most severe injuries.

In some cases, the rapists have violated their victims with loaded guns and pulled the triggers. Other women have had their organs deliberately destroyed by knives or other weapons. Sons have been forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers. Many women and girls have been abducted and sexually enslaved.

It is as if, in these particular instances, some window to what we think of as our common humanity had been closed. As The Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, on assignment in Congo, wrote last fall:

“Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.”

Dr. Mukwege visited me at The Times last week. He was accompanied by the playwright, Eve Ensler, who has been passionate in her efforts to bring attention and assistance to the women of Congo.

I asked Dr. Mukwege to explain how it was in the strategic interest of the various armed groups to rape and otherwise brutalize women. He described some of the ramifications of such atrocities and the ways in which they undermine the entire society in which the women live.

“Once they have raped these women in such a public way,” he said, “sometimes maiming them, destroying their sexual organs — and with everybody watching — the women themselves are destroyed, or virtually destroyed. They are traumatized and humiliated on every level, physical and psychological. That’s the first consequence.

“The second consequence is that the whole family and the entire neighborhood is traumatized by what they have seen. The ordinary sense of family and community is lost after a man has been forced to watch his wife being raped, or parents are forced to watch the rape of their daughters, or children see their mothers raped.

“Neighbors are witnesses to this. Many flee. Families are dislocated. Social relationships are lost. There is no more social network, village network. Not only the victims have been destroyed; the whole village is destroyed.”

The devastating injuries treated by Dr. Mukwege at his hospital can all but stun the imagination. There is no need to detail them further here. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace. Often the ability to bear children is destroyed. In many other cases, women end up giving birth to the children of their rapists.

“The hospital can take care of 3,600 women every year,” said Dr. Mukwege. “That is our maximum capacity. We can’t take any more.”

He spoke of ambulance teams that would drive into villages and be besieged by rape victims desperately seeking treatment. “It is awful to see 300 women in need of help,” he said, “and you have to take 10 because the ambulance can only take 10.”

Ms. Ensler spoke of her encounter with an 8-year-old girl during one of her trips to Congo. The girl’s father had been killed in an attack, her mother was raped, and the girl herself was abducted. The child was raped by groups of soldiers over a two-week period and then abandoned.

The girl felt too ashamed to allow herself to be held, Ms. Ensler said, because her injuries had left her incontinent. After explaining how she persuaded the child to accept an embrace, to be hugged, Ms. Ensler said, “If we’re living in a century when an 8-year-old girl is incontinent because that many soldiers have raped her, then something has gone terribly wrong.”

Despite the presence in the region of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, no one has been able to stop the systematic rape of the Congolese women.

If these are not war crimes, crimes against humanity, then nothing is.

Protect Roe in South Dakota

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on October 29, 2008

From ACLU:

Tomorrow evening we are hosting phonebanking in our New York City office to help the cause in South Dakota by encouraging voters to vote against a state abortion ban. 

Please Join Us!

When: Thursday, Oct. 30, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Where: 125 Broad St., 19th Floor
New York, NY
RSVP to Ariel at or 212.607.3339

The votes cast on November 4th will have an enormous impact on reproductive rights in the 21st century. While most of the country and the world will be watching what states go red, and what states go blue, many of our colleagues and allies will also be watching South Dakota, as the state’s residents vote again on a near complete ban on all abortions.

A sweeping ban, like the one on the ballot, would be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and would be challenged — possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. As we saw with the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the federal ban on a certain method of performing abortions, we cannot rely on this court to protect women’s right to make fundamental decisions for ourselves and our families. We cannot sit by as the future of reproductive freedom nationwide is threatened in South Dakota.

We hope to see you tomorrow.

Background: New York Times


WASHINGTON — After a group of doctors challenged a South Dakota law forcing them to inform women that abortions “terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being” — using exactly that language — President Bush’s appointees to the federal appeals courts took control.

A federal trial judge, stating that whether a fetus is human life is a matter of debate, had blocked the state from enforcing the 2005 law as a likely violation of doctors’ First Amendment rights. And an appeals court panel had upheld the injunction.

But this past June, the full United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit voted 7 to 4 to overrule those decisions and allow the statute to take immediate effect. The majority argued that it is objectively true that human life begins at conception, and that the state can force doctors to say so.

Mr. Bush had appointed six of the seven judges in the conservative majority. His administration has transformed the nation’s federal appeals courts, advancing a conservative legal revolution that began nearly three decades ago under President Ronald Reagan.

I Hate Maureen Dowd

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on October 16, 2008

[This is the piece I wrote for the 2008 Hysterical Festival. Enjoy!]

This piece I wrote is about Maureen Dowd. In case you’re a fortunate person, who is living a life unmarred by Maureen Dowd, let me explain who she is. Maureen is a New York Times columnist. She is 56-years-young, but she still uses her glamour shot from 20 years ago as her photo in the New York Times. Sexy.

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd

Tearing down Maureen at a festival celebrating women may seem like a conflict of interest, but it’s not. I am defending womankind from Maureen Dowd.

Here’s why: she is a terrible writer, a fact hidden from some people because she is also a well-educated woman, who throws around polysyllabic words and crams Classical references into every metaphor even if they don’t really belong there. If the sentence could be: Becky finished her lunch and went to the store, Maureen would write: Rebecca vanquished her brunch and sauntered to the boutique.

She’s pretentious AND she’s not funny despite the fact that she’s sort of the unofficial humorist for the Times, a job I imagine no one assigned her, but which Maureen has nonetheless taken up as her crusade.

I think the New York Times should spend its Maureen Dowd pay allowance on either a real journalist or a real comic, but they need to get off the fence and stop wasting everyone’s time with Maureen Dowd’s creepy half-jokes. Whenever I read one of her awful puns, it feels like some old man is trying to put his cold hand up my skirt. I feel cheated by her terrible sense of humor and her Wikipedia-researched columns.

Here’s the good news: I’m not alone in my hatred for her. A simple Google search of “Maureen Dowd is awful” brings up a ton of great reading material.

For example, Maureen is so slit-your-wrists terrible that students at Oxford had to invent a new term just to deal with reading her work. They call it “The Immutable Law of Dowd” and it includes 3 laws that describe all of Maureen’s articles. The first law is that her writing contains all personality and no substance.

Which brings me to another reason why I hate Maureen Dowd: She won a Pulitzer Prize…but not for her coverage of some tragic war or issues of poverty or famine. Maureen Dowd won the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage… of the Monica Lewinski scandal.

Reading her Lewinski coverage is like reading a child’s explanation of what happened. Here’s her series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in a nutshell: Horny dude meets desperate, chubby girl, evil best friend betrays chubby girl, and sex-addict prosecutor ruins everyone’s day. Granted, the Clinton-Lewinsky so-called “scandal” was ridiculous to begin with, but Maureen Dowd’s awful writing should not have been so thoroughly praised. It only encouraged her.

Maureen is also the Queen of bad puns. Just a quick example because I really want you to take this journey with me. When describing Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Maureen borrowed from the musical My Fair Lady and massaged the lyrics with hilaaaarious results: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the Arctic plain.” Pulitzer Prize winner: Maureen Dowd.

And this stuff goes on for an entire page, like twice a week. In fairness to Maureen, I don’t like puns in general. Like when someone tells Sarah Palin to stay the PUCK out of their city, what they really mean to say is stay the FUCK out of my city. Like an adult.

The second Immutable Law of Dowd is that it’s easier to whine than take a stand. The reason Maureen Dowd portrays political figures as shallow caricatures is because it’s easy to paint a whimsical alternate universe than it is aggressively attack reality. In short: Maureen Dowd is an unfunny coward. This second law ties into the third and last Immutable Law of Dowd: It’s easier to be cute than coherent.

I don’t want to fill the room with negativity, and anyway, that isn’t what this is about. What I really mean to say is the following, and really, the whole point of everything that came before it: I hate Maureen Dowd as much as I love and miss Molly Ivins.

In fact, this piece is less a hate-filled diatribe against Maureen Dowd and more a tribute to the late, great Molly Ivins: the scrappiest, most honest journalist and columnist I have ever had the privilege of reading.

I can think of no two women that better illustrate the battle of good versus evil than Molly and Maureen. If we lived in a super hero movie, Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins would fight with knives on a mountaintop. And in the final moment of the final scene, Molly would tear off Maureen’s head, hold it up triumphantly and shout to the villagers below, “YOU ARE FREE!”

Unlike Maureen’s weekly abortions, Molly wrote brilliant columns and never sullied her readers’ minds with anything less than kick-your-teeth-in wit and fearlessness.

While Maureen’s greatest accomplishment is her Pulitzer Prize for reporting on a blowjob, Molly always said her greatest accomplishments were: having the Minneapolis police force’s mascot pig named after her, and being banned from the Texas A&M campus.

While even Oxford students can’t figure out where the hell Maureen stands on anything, there was never any doubt where Molly stood on the big issues.

She hated George W. Bush’s guts. She once said: “Everyone knows the man has no clue, but no one has the courage to say it. I mean, good gawd, the man is as he always has been: barely adequate.”

She also hated Pat Buchanan. Pat once delivered a famous “culture war speech” at the 1992 Republican Convention, where he railed against “liberals, and supporters of reproductive and gay rights.” Afterward, Molly remarked that the speech, “probably sounded better in the original German.”

When talking about the difference between Maureen and Molly, I really can’t say it better than Molly said it herself: “There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule.”

Well, I don’t want to chuckle at my government, but I do want them to feel contempt and ridicule. So while I hate, hate, hate Maureen Dowd, I love Molly Ivins, and this is my tribute to her.

It’s up to you to decide which one is the angel of ball-bashing journalism and which one is a shallow, painted clown. But I’ll leave you with the words from the ladies themselves:

This is the last paragraph of Molly Ivin’s last column:

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there.

And this is a line from one of Maureen Dowd’s latest columns:

I don’t think Sarah Palin meeting with Henry Kissinger is a sign of the Apocalypse. It isn’t even a sign of the ApocaLIPSTIC.

The decision…is yours.