Women must lead Iraq's anti-corruption fight, Baghdad mayor says

Zikra Alwash tells The National of her ambitious plans to rebuild Iraq's war-scarred capital

Baghdad Mayor Thikra Alwash, 60-year-old civil engineer and only woman mayor of a Middle East capital, speaks during an interview with AFP in the Iraqi capital on January 29, 2018.
Thikra wants to revive her war-torn city, fix its decrepit infrastructure and twin it with Paris -- another female-led metropolis. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

When she was a top civil servant, Zikra Alwash worried about education.

Now, as mayor of the nation's capital Baghdad, it is corruption that dominates her working hours.

As the city's first female mayor, she is in office at a time of public disdain for many politicians. Last month, people took to the streets to protest against corruption, particularly in southern Iraq, and the need for better public services and government.

With the capital still the nation's power centre, she has made the battle against corruption — and women's role in it — her biggest campaign.

The 50-year old civil engineer, mayor since 2015, has given herself a decade to not only revive the war-torn city but to achieve gender equality and place women at the heart of central government.

"The 'women united against corruption' campaign was launched by a number of Iraqi females aiming to fight corruption and fraud," she told The National.

"We can safely say that women's involvement in this matter has been very limited," she said.

Bad government has been central to Iraq's dire problems, with international monitors routinely putting the country near the top of the list of failing states.

Many Iraqis believe that they live in the world's most corrupt country — Transparency International placed it the 169th worst nation of 180 — on its Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

Ms Alwash also chairs a national committee for women's advancement in Iraq. As such, reversing decades of endemic corruption, she says, offers an opportunity to boost women's involvement in a fragile political system.

Baghdad Mayor Thikra Alwash, 60-year-old civil engineer and only woman mayor of a Middle East capital, speaks to civilians during a tour at al-Rashid street in the Iraqi capital on January 29, 2018.
Thikra wants to revive her war-torn city, fix its decrepit infrastructure and twin it with Paris -- another female-led metropolis. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

Women's efforts towards equal pay for equal work, as well as leadership and management positions can be heavily hindered by fraud, she said.

As the first female mayor in the Iraqi capital's history she has crossed such barriers, although the task of governing a war-broken city remains mammoth, regardless of gender.

Baghdad's infrastructure was hindered by a 13-year international embargo against Saddam Hussein's regime. The 2003 US-led invasion that toppled him saw buildings flattened. The subsequent years of sectarian violence and the rise and fall of ISIS has added to the dysfunction.

Today, Baghdad has more than seven million inhabitants — an increase of 45 per cent since 2015, a year after ISIS seized a third of Iraq and triggered a rural exodus.

Future plans

Baghdad has been on the decline for decades, with many districts abandoned. Yet a rising population has coincided with chronic traffic jams that pump out suffocating pollution.

"Plans are under way to improve the services across the capital, particularly the city’s infrastructure following the increase in population," Ms Alwash said.

The mayor has set her sights on reducing the municipality's expenditure and ensuring that institutions are self-reliant. She also aims to attract foreign investment, to increase the capital's income.


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"Revenues made do not cover our staff salaries and the municipality's allocations. We have taken into account the economic crisis the country is going through as well as its brutal war against ISIS," she said.

The mayor said that city officials had found alternative solutions to ensure basic services were distributed around the capital.

Despite the challenges, Ms Alwash vowed to "maintain the existing infrastructure of Baghdad and to facilitate projects that will cater to the inhabitants".

A former director general at Iraq's higher education ministry, the mayor was appointed by Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, and took over from a predecessor long embroiled in corruption allegations.

Corruption still deters the progress that women have made in attaining equal rights to their male counterparts, she said.

Women's representation in government 

The number of women in the central government remains low but Ms Alwash has vowed to address the issue.

"We are always calling on the government to increase women's representation in holding leadership roles in ministries and legislative bodies."

The cabinet is the place where women can impose their presence, she said, while highlighting the importance of the government in supporting women by setting up training courses on project or business management.

"We have proven that women in legislative bodies are excellent in their positions but women need to be empowered economically through workshops and programmes carried out by the government and international bodies," she said.

Security concerns 

Ms Alwash warned that security would be critical for achieving such goals, and that while ISIS had been defeated, countering the group's ideology would be a long campaign.

"When ISIS invaded Iraq, the group had a huge impact on women, they left them displaced, widowed, they violated their basic rights and in some cases even raped them."

The municipality fears an ISIS-led resumption of attacks on Baghdad's inhabitants as well as its staff.

When Baghdad was going through security challenges, "we had many employees under attack, many of them were martyred", she said.

Yet, somehow the capital is still managing to go through a transitional period of reconstruction and investment.

"Our staff are on high alert, we are managing to offer services and to achieve justice."