Alumna Helps Women in War-Torn Countries to Help Themselves

Posted: February 6, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Manal Omar
Manal Omar

Every day, Manal Omar, BA International Studies ’96, confronts danger to do a job she loves. As a regional coordinator for Women for Women International, Omar covers the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2003, she has spent a large part of her time in Iraq working to establish a local office there.

“Most of our work has to be extremely low profile,” she says. “The threat against civilian lives – whether Iraqi or international – is very real, especially for development organizations working within the country.

“The Iraq of 2003 was much safer than 2005. The first year in Iraq, I traveled all over the country, including the heart of Falluja, Baaqoobah, Karbala and Najaf. But each year, security becomes worse and worse.”

Women for Women International’s main focus is on economic activities, providing support and resources for women in conflict or postconflict environments. In addition to working with the women on a grassroots level, it also reaches out to national and international leaders to raise awareness about the status of women in these countries.

In June, Omar and Women for Women International CEO and President Zainab Salbi, BIS ’96, organized a two-day conference in Jordan, bringing together members of the Iraqi constitutional committee, Iraqi feminists and regional experts to discuss Islamic society and women’s rights. Constitutional debates continued throughout the summer as Iraqis drafted their constitution.

“The challenge has been having the debates in the first place. On the ground, security and the timeframe have been huge challenges for women who wish to have an impact on the constitution,” Omar says. “On the international side, there has been a lot of response on women’s issues, but within Iraq, the concern has been security and trying to establish a sense of stability.”

Still, Omar remains hopeful: “My belief is that women are a barometer of the overall success of a nation.”

Omar has always advocated for women’s rights. After graduating from Mason, she received a master of arts in Arab studies with a concentration in economics and development from Georgetown University. Prior to joining Women for Women International, she worked for the World Bank, the International Center for Research on Women and the Oil-for-Food Program administered by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Commission in Iraq. She has also served as a consultant for the U.S. Information Agency on building the capacity of local women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Yemen and Bahrain.

Last year, at the Iraq office of Women for Women International, Omar played a supporting role for the local staff members who were taking over for Iraqi NGOs. She is now working to establish an office in the Sudan.

“I have lost many close friends and colleagues – so the reality of death is around me all the time,” she says. “The feeling of loss when I think of those who have paid with their lives for Iraq can be overwhelming. Yet the feeling of hope and change is stronger, and that’s what I try to focus my energy on.”

Manal Omar in the Sudan
Manal Omar (center, in white) with women in the Sudan.

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