First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

When words tell only part of the story

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Photo by Ceerwan Aziz
Photo by Ceerwan Aziz

This is Jameela.

She’s featured in a new report Oxfam has just published on the challenges facing women in Iraq today—challenges that have plunged many of them, including those widowed by the war, deep into poverty. “In Her Own Words” is the name of the report.  But words hardly begin to capture all that Jameela’s face conveys.

I print out her portrait and study it.

She’s 50. Only 50.

Two years younger than me? How could that be?

A widow and the mother of a son who has been mentally disturbed and unable to work since a US bomb hit his barracks in 2003, Jameela makes her living selling incense and candles to mourners who visit a cemetery not far from her home in the city of Najaf.

“My life depends on this,” she says. ”I receive no government support for being a widow.”

For the past decade, she has eked out her living this way. Some days, with the sun beating down, the temperature climbs higher than 110 degrees Fahrenheit at the cemetery and Jameela has to rely on passersby for the little bit of water she drinks.

The water situation at her home is not much better: The pipe at the end of her street is broken—and has been for some time—so the water drawn from it can get mixed with sewage. There is no sewage system here Jameela lives. The family dumps its wastewater into a pit beside their house, and when the pit’s full the waste goes into the street.

I pick up Jameela’s picture again. Her gaze is direct. And hard.

She’s just one of the 1,700 women surveyed for this report. I imagine what the faces of all the other women must say, too–faces worn with a suffering that statistics can never adequately describe.

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