Kawther and her children in the yard of their home
Kawther with her children in the yard of her home. Photo credit: Marwa Arshad Saadoon, © World Vision 2022.

The scattered dream of childhood

She had a dream. Her dream was to become a doctor. But this dream scattered like sand in the wind when she was withdrawn from school in her second year of primary school.

That is the story of Kawther*, today aged twenty-eight. She unhappily recounts how she lost her schooling and her dreams with them. After her father kept her home and out of school, she joined the rest of her family of eleven members to help farm and raise sheep and cows.

Kawther comes from a very poor family. Her family of twelve members and her uncle’s family of eight members shared the same house and lived together.

At seventeen, Kawther knew that one day all her remaining hopes and dreams would also disappear. And then one day, it did when her father returned home and told the family that he promised one of her daughters to one of the relatives who asked for a bride for his son. Kawther’s father had chosen Kawther to be married off. Kawther bitterly recounts, “I felt terrible. I was devastated. I was still young and yet got married off. My friends told me you are still young and don’t get married, but I told them that my father gave his word and cannot undo it.”

It is part of Iraqi traditions, especially in the rural and tribal settings, that when a man gives his word, he cannot change his mind later or not deliver on his promise. In Kawther’s case, Kawther’s father gave his word to the relatives without asking for Kawther’s opinion. Regardless, it was binding on her. 

It is also common for many women in Iraq to have been married before they attained their majority. According to the Girls Not Brides network, 28% of girls in Iraq are married before 18, and 7% are married before 15.  In real terms, this means that 5.6 million out of 20.7 million women in Iraq are married before the age of 18. Marrying at such a young age exposes women to risks of domestic violence, financial dependency and health complications resulting from pregnancy, and other factors.

Kawther was no exception to the problems of being married young. She got her first child after a year of marriage and her second child at the end of that year. She recounts her difficult pregnancies and her complicated deliveries. Added to those difficulties, Kawther later had to face the responsibilities of her new born. She said, “The responsibilities were too much on me. I was too young for all that. I wasn’t up to the responsibility. So my mother in law and my husband helped me with my first child.”

Luckily Kawther’s husband was only older than her by one year. And was young enough and not so traditional as not to help her out a little bit, but this may not be the case for many girls married at a young age. Many get to get married to men significantly older than them.

After the conflict started in 2014, her husband was killed during one of the plane attacks. As a result, Kawther was left to raise her five children on her own with no financial means. As she no longer had the financial support from her husband, who used to work in the flour factory, a charitable mosque in her neighborhood assisted her by giving her 50,000 IQD (34 USD) every month. Still, it has been a struggle to get enough food for her five children and herself.

This year, Kawther was part of an Economic Recovery and Livelihoods Project that World Vision Iraq implements in partnership with UNDP Iraq and with funding from BMZ and KFW. Through this project, she received business training and a financial grant. She invested the money she received by purchasing sheep and cows. Today, Kawther has a small project that enables her to produce natural yoghurt and sell them in her neighborhood. Now, she makes more money than she used to get at the mosque monthly. As a single mother running her own business, she feels she has no choice but to be self-reliant and strong. She believes that women should stand for themselves. She said, “Women have to work and rely on themselves.”

Kawther’s marriage and the subsequent responsibilities still haunt her. Kawther said, “Marriage is a responsibility. They (her children) don’t have a father now. I am their father and mother. I wish I had not gotten married and was single still.”

Despite her difficulties, Kawther is determined to never have her children married off before the age of twenty. For Kawther, new hopes and dreams have sprung up around needing to build a better future for her children. She shared, “My dream is to raise my children and that they finish their education and that I make good homes for them. For me, my life and future are over. But I can hope and dream for them.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity.