The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 had a devastating impact on its people, particularly women who faced unique forms of suffering during the 13-year-long sanctions. The shortage of basic necessities, including women’s, had a severe impact on their health and well-being. The healthcare sector also suffered greatly, leading to increased maternal and child mortality rates with consequences still felt up till today.. Twenty years after the lifting of the sanctions, it is worth examining whether the situation has improved for Iraqi women or if they continue to face similar challenges. This article will delve into the unique suffering of women during the blockade and explore the current situation to determine if they are still facing significant challenges.

During the approximately 13-year period between 1990 and 2003, the health sector in Iraq witnessed a catastrophic decline in the volume, quality and efficiency of its healthcare institutions. The most affected by this were women and children.

Following the imposition of United Nations sanctions on Iraq, an alarming surge in infant, under-5, and maternal mortality rates was noted, predominantly in the southern and central regions of the country. The infant mortality rate soared from 47 per 1000 live births during the 1984–89 period to 108 per 1000 in 1994–99. Similarly, under-5 mortality rates escalated from 56 to 131 per 1000 live births according to relifweb.

Meanwhile, according to a summary of the 1999 survey by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the maternal mortality rate due to the sanctions climbed from 50 per 100,000 live births in 1989 to 117 per 100,000 live births in 1997. Concurrently, the under-five mortality rate rose from 30.2 per 1,000 live births to 97.2 during the same timeframe.

Furthermore, the proportion of low birth weight babies (less than 2.5 kg) grew from 4% in 1990 to around a quarter of registered births in 1997, attributable to poor nutrition at birth. It was also reported that approximately 70% of Iraqi women suffered from anaemia during this period.

Contrastingly, in Iraqi Kurdistan, there was a decline in infant and under-5 mortality rates over the same period. Specifically, infant mortality fell from 64 to 59 per 1000, and under-5 mortality decreased from 80 to 72 per 1000.

Upon further examination of child mortality rates, it was found that higher rates were commonly associated with children born in rural areas, those born to women without any formal education, and among male children. These patterns were consistent across both the southern/central regions and Kurdistan.

Latifa Al-Saadi, a 50-year-old Iraqi woman, shared with us her story of motherhood during the economic sanctions on Iraq. She paints a picture of harrowing experiences. She recounted her first pregnancy as she bore her daughter Nour in 1991, and her second daughter Huda in 1993. Each year, things got worse, and the difference between the two pregnancies and births was palpable. During her second delivery, she remembers the chaos and a lack of medical attention – there were no hospital beds, no specialised doctors, and services were almost non-existent.

The impact of the sanctions was not just limited to the healthcare sector but extended to all aspects of life. The inflation rate soared to 448.50 in 1994 according to The World Bank Data, leading to a significant migration of researchers, doctors, and engineers who left Iraq due to the severe poverty.

Dr. Amina Al-Sharifi, an Iraqi gynaecologist, shared a similar story, recounting the dire conditions and lack of medical equipment: “the only thing we could do was to watch those women die during birth”, which eventually forced her to migrate in 1995.

Women’s alternative solutions

The alternatives during the sanctions were primitive and caused physical and psychological harm to women. Ibtihaal al-Lami, 48, talks about the taboo of the sanctions so many items of basic necessity were simply non-existent, ” We had no sanitary pads, for example. We resorted to buying pieces of cloth and using them instead, which made us lose our sense of being civilised”.

Ibtihaal, who also gave birth during the sanctions period, recounts a very bitter experience: “[w]hen I gave birth to my first child (Ali) in 1995, there were no diapers available, they were either unavailable or expensive. We used what is known as the “lagafah,” which is a makeshift cloth and nylon diaper that we used multiple times. It was harmful, but we had no other option,” she added.

Poverty and Women

As poverty took over the lives of Iraqis, particularly women, the State media began portraying distorted images of Iraqi women. They were either depicted as powerless and weak or as having a bad reputation. This was reflected in low-quality theatrical productions, in which women played roles that belittle their social and human values. At the same time, many women turned to religion to alleviate the burden of poverty and need. It was easier not to search for makeup and bright colours because grey prevailed.

Nazik Mubarak, a 45-year-old woman, stated, “What happened to us was equal to humiliation. My sisters and I were forced to wear the hijab and abaya not because of religious beliefs, but because of poverty. Buying new clothes and visiting hairdressers became impossible for many of us.”

She added that during those days, many of them would wear each other’s clothes, and renew their used clothes in several ways, by shortening them or even by turning them inside out and sewing them again. Later on, they started buying from second hand clothes from other families where they would find used clothes that might have belonged to the deceased. “We were truly in great humiliation and had greater trouble. God forbid that those days ever come back,” she said.

During the era of the sanctions in Iraq, weddings were not always happy occasions for many women. They had to do without many elements associated with weddings or bridal preparations, due to poverty and destitution, as well as a fear of celibacy. The economic recession and social crisis that affected wide sectors of Iraqi youth under the influence of the sanctions  intensified this fear. According to the weekly newspaper “Al-Rafidain,” published in 2001, there were about one million unmarried Iraqi women aged between 35 and 45 (beyond the normal age of marriage), indicating a rising trend of spinsterhood in Iraqi society that was not known a decade ago.

Muna Al-Mousawi, 52, says about that era, “God saved me when I got married. It ended my torments about being single that was haunting me. My older sister remained unmarried due to the sanctions and overall tense situation in the country.” She added, “My husband sold everything just to marry me, and I sold everything just to have a chance to travel and search for work in Jordan. We returned to Iraq after 2003.”

Reflecting on the long-term effects of the United Nations sanctions on Iraq, an anonymous testimony from a gynaecologist reveals the tragic consequences. According to the medical professional, 3 out of every 10 women visiting her clinic have experienced infectious complications stemming from the use of inappropriate supplies. These complications tragically resulted in the loss of their foetuses after the third month of pregnancy. This alarming statistic underscores the enduring impact of these sanctions, demonstrating how improper practices introduced during periods of scarcity can perpetuate harm, cascading across generations. The crisis of maternal and foetal health, as highlighted by this gynaecologist’s account, serves as a stark reminder of the lasting health consequences of such economic policies.