Iraqi women's affairs minister resigns in protest

BAGHDAD Thu Feb 5, 2009 2:25pm EST

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's minister of women's affairs resigned on Thursday in protest at a lack of resources to cope with "an army of widows, unemployed, oppressed and detained women" after years of sectarian warfare.

Nawal al-Samarai said her status as a secretary of state and not a full minister reflected the low emphasis given by the government to the plight of women in Iraq, once one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East for women's rights.

"This ministry with its current title cannot cope with the needs of Iraqi women," said Samarai, who was appointed in July.

"We have many problems related to Iraqi women. We have an army of widows, unemployed, oppressed and detained women. I feel like I am sitting in a minister's chair enjoying the privileges of a minister but I cannot act as one," she told Reuters.

Years of sectarian slaughter between Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arabs, who dominated the country before U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, have put heavy strains on families.

Women's rights suffered in areas where Sunni Islamist militants held sway at the height of the insurgency, and in other areas when religious parties came to dominate Iraq after Saddam's fall.

The religious parties were largely given a drubbing in provincial elections on January 31, but it was too early to tell how many women would end up with seats on regional councils or what their political clout might be.

Women's groups have complained the new system used in this year's polls could mean women win fewer seats than in the last local polls in 2005.

Samarai said her department had only been assigned a single office in the heavily protected Green Zone in Baghdad where many government offices and foreign embassies are located. She had no offices in the provinces where the needs of women were greatest.

"Because there is not a single office in any province, how can any Iraqi woman reach me or send me her complaints?" she said.

(Reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Katie Nguyen)