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The Women and Children of Iraq Are Under Siege

by Rania Masri


"I am against war, since war means destruction, hurt and ruin. Nobody should like war especially when all the great powers of the world gang up against one country in an unequal war and try to destroy all signs of progress and make the country go back to the middle ages. People are starving to death and inflation is murder. Missiles and bombs do not think, they hit and explode-whether you are military or civilian, sick or well, old or young, men or women, you die. Where do you go to hide?"

-- Iraqi woman over 50 years old


The war against the Iraqi people did not end in 1991 with George Bush's cease-fire declaration; instead, the war against the Iraqi people-against the Iraqi men, women, and children - is continuing with savage intensity to this very day. It has only changed in form from the thunder of bombs to the eerie silence of a militarily-enforced blockade.

More than 300,000 Iraqis were killed in the 43-day military war in 1991. Since then, more than one million people-mainly young children-have died as a direct result of the US-led blockade on this small country. The lack of food and medicine, along with the deteriorating sanitary conditions in Iraq, have caused far more harm and suffering than the military war itself-despite the use of more than 142,000 tons of bombs and 350 tons of depleted uranium shells during the bombing campaigns. From a legal perspective, the maritime blockade, coupled with the air blockade, amounts to an act of war, thereby making the economic sanctions a continuation of the war that supposedly ended in March 1991.

What have been the effects of this continuing war, euphemistically referred to as sanctions, on the people of Iraq? Four million people, one-fifth of the population, are currently starving to death in Iraq (UN FAO report, 1995). The general human situation is deteriorating everyday, while the situation for women in Iraq is even more precarious. Up to 95% of all pregnant women in Iraq suffer from anemia, and thus will give birth to weak, malnourished infants. Most of these infants will either die before reaching the age of five due to the lack of food and basic medicines or will be permanently scarred, either physically or mentally. Furthermore, many mothers, due to their own weak bodies, are unable to breast-feed their children. Due to the runaway inflation caused by the blockade, these families lack the means to feed their children. The mothers often bring their children to the hospital to die.

Every month in Iraq, according to the 1996 UNICEF report, more than 4,500 children under the age of five die from hunger. The children are the most vulnerable in this war. Twenty-three percent of all children in Iraq have stunted growth, approximately twice the percentage before the war. A 1995 FAO report Crop and Nutrition Status Assessment Mission states that child mortality level in Iraq has risen nearly fivefold since 1990. Alarming food shortages are causing irreparable damage to an entire generation of children. Due to the use of depleted uranium (a form of nuclear warfare) in the military campaign against the people of Iraq, there has been a dramatic increase in childhood cancers, particularly leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, and lymphomas. Congenital diseases and deformities in the fetuses-a condition similar to the babies of the Gulf War veterans-have also increased. Infant mortality in a child's first year is expected to reach an unprecedented 20%. More than 2 million children are starving to death in Iraq, and more than 1,500,000 orphans are crying out for help.

The most basic human right is the right to life, a right that is severely violated through this lethal blockade that limits food and medicine. Prior to 1991, Iraq used to have the most extensive and free health-care system in the region. Now, due to the blockade, hospitals suffer from a lack of medicine, needles, vaccines, and anesthesia. Minor surgeries, such as cesareans, are now commonly conducted without any anesthesia.

Women's standing in Iraqi society has suffered along with all else. Due to the choked economy, many women have lost their jobs and abandoned their education, thereby losing both their financial independence as well as their best opportunities for self-determination and liberation. Yet this loss seems almost trivial during a time when most women in Iraq focus all their efforts in search of enough food and clean water to ensure their family's survival.

Prior to the blockade, Iraq used to import 70% of its agricultural seeds. Seeds and fertilizers, the very means through which Iraq can feed its people, are officially banned by the blockade, as are needles, anesthesia, medical equipment, and a whole plethora of products needed to support modern medical treatments.

Waste-water treatment plants were destroyed during the military war, and spare parts to rebuild them are prohibited by the blockade. As a consequence, sewage fills the once clean streets, and the water supply is contaminated with disease-diseases for which there is no medicine available in the country.

Contrary to popular perception, United Nations Resolution 986 (UNR 986), also known as the "food for oil deal," is not the solution to this humanitarian tragedy in Iraq. UNR 986 will, under the most optimistic conditions, provide less than 25% of the minimal caloric intake to the 20 million besieged people of Iraq. The only solution is the lifting of the blockade on the people of Iraq so that the people may once again live and prosper.

The deaths of hundreds of thousands of children is unjustifiable. Already, more than half a million children under the age of five have been killed by this blockade. 4,500 children are dying every month. How many more must die? How many more mothers must cry helplessly?

  Rania Masri is founder and coordinator of the Iraq Action Coalition. http://leb.net/IAC/  

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