The women come from the rapidly emerging poverty belts and slums of Basra and practice a profession that nobody else wants. They spend their days searching the city’s garbage dumps for plastic containers, leather shoes, cardboard, copper, old electrical appliances, car machinery and an array of other goods that can be recycled or sold on.
During the 1990s special recycling workshops appeared in poor areas of Basra and since their creation they have used women as cheap labour. Today, these workshops are flourishing.
Forty-five year old Umm Awad lives in al-Hayyanah village near Basra. She worked as a wandering woman until she lost one of her legs when a mine exploded as she searched for metal scraps along the border with Iran.
She now works 12 hours each day in the unlicensed workshop of Raad al-Darraji, sorting through and cleaning the goods that are brought in. “It is a job that breaks one’s back,” she said describing her daily tasks which include boiling old shoes to get the heels off, scraping electric wire to take out the copper, and cleaning bottles.
Sitting on a low chair with her one leg stretched out before her, Umm Awad described her fellow workers as a poor and illiterate group. She blamed men for preventing women from gaining the education that would provide them with better jobs. “Husbands, brothers and the men of the tribe do not like to see women go to schools,” she explained.
Umm Awad lost her leg searching for the most valuable of rubbish: military remains from Iraq’s numerous wars of recent decades. Wars leave valuable waste and these women spend much of the time exploring the desert along the Iranian and Saudi borders for remnants of Iraq’s recent wars.
Weapons, destroyed vehicles and tanks, building materials and tires litter the ground, says 20 year old Zahra. “We go to the border areas with a pick-up vehicle and spend two to three days collecting material to bring back to the workshop,” she explained. “We start searching for military equipment buried under the desert sand. If we are lucky, we find a damaged military tank or an armored vehicle; we take the useful parts with us and leave the rest behind.”
Men accompany the women to protect them from gangs and rival workshop workers. However, the dangerous nature of the waste means the women often incur wounds from the materials themselves. Umm Awad is just one example of many.
According to Dr. Salem al-Saad, from Basra’s Education Hospital, “many people have suffered injuries and been handicapped because of land mines planted on the border areas, including a high number of women. Wandering women lack awareness of the health dangers arising from contaminated military waste,” he said, adding that workshops do not follow any health requirements. Al-Saad, who supervised the operation of Umm Awad, added that “the lucky women find their way to the hospital, while others bleed and die before reaching the hospital.”Al-Darraji’s old workshop has a section for melting metals. Sitting behind his old metal desk, smoking his cigarette and waiting for women to come back from their journey, al-Darraji justifies his employment of the women and the dangers associated with the job.
“Most of the women who work at the workshop do not have anybody to support them; they have to work day and night to earn their living,” he says. “I provide widowed and poor women with a clean source of income.”
According to al-Darraji women make better workers than men. “We depend on these women more than we depend on men as they can endure more and they perform other jobs too; they sew and they prepare food during the search journeys.”
But social worker Hind al-Mayyahi says that working conditions in these workshops are “inhuman,” and blames municipal officials for not imposing better regulations. “The failure of government agencies in investigating and detecting the conditions of this poor sector of society has left women working in dangerous fields,” said Al-Mayyahi.
Rather than helping those in need, corrupt officials are illicitly channeling the available financial assistance for their own gain, said al-Mayyahi. As a result of these allegations the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has frozen all financial assistance in order to investigate the financial conditions of recipients. However, al-Mayyahi says this has also prevented help being given to those in desperate need of government support.
In such circumstances it is likely that more and more women will be forced to turn to dangerous jobs to support themselves and that the number of wandering women will grow. Al-Darraji, for one, believes that there is “plenty of wealth” still buried under the desert sand and is intent on sending out more women to track it down.