Fighting COVID-19 and gender inequality: Walaa’s story

Posted October 4, 2020

Given their importance in responding to COVID-19, involving women in the decision-making positions is critical. UNDP has encouraged women in Iraq to take a leading role in tackling the pandemic. In fact, some women have been leading health committees in local health facilities, supporting their local community and spreading hope in these challenging times.

29-year-old Biomedical Engineer Walaa was recently appointed as the head of the committee responsible for supervising the delivery and installation of the medical equipment to support the Government of Iraq’s COVID-19 response  in Anbar. She is a dedicated young woman who has taken up the challenge a while ago by reaching her workplace in Ramadi from her home in Fallujah, some distance away.

When did you start working in Anbar Health Directorate? What are your responsibilities?

I started to work in Anbar Health Directorate in the beginning of 2017. At that time, my specialty didn’t exist in the Directorate. Given its importance [managing medical equipment], I advocated for this role and I successfully launched it. My main responsibilities involve managing the medical equipment and repairing damaged equipment. I also keep abreast of any shortages of medical equipment in Anbar Health Directorate, helping to distribute them to other hospitals in the region, e.g. Ramadi and Fallujah.

Are you part of any committee in the Health Directorate? Do you contribute with more than your technical specialty ?

I am actually involved in a number of committees. Firstly, I am heading the committee related to the supervision of medical equipment to support COVID-19 response to Anbar. I liaise and coordinate between Anbar Health Directorate and the Ministry of Health as well as international organizations such as the United Nations. I supervise the technical preparation and delivery of medical equipment, in accordance with set standards and protocols. For instance, I am now looking into UNDP’s valuable contribution of 20 ventilators to the facility, which will be received shortly. Likewise, I am part of the management committee of the isolation ward in Anbar which currently serves as the main isolation hospital for confirmed COVID-19 cases in the region. I provide  technical expertise, and also fill in for colleagues when required, covering relevant administrative and logistical aspects.

What’s it like being a health worker in Iraq amid COVID-19 pandemic? Did you witness an increase of responsibilities?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, my daily struggle to reach work has intensified, it takes much  longer to travel to and from work due to the lack of transportation. While most engineers do not work to their full capacity, I opted to work full time during these dire times, which means that I do everything. I fill the gaps of absent colleagues, attend meetings in the ministry and carry on my usual responsibilities.

As a woman health care worker, why is it important to be part of such a committee?

It is crucial to be part of such a committee, as very few women are visible in the workplace in Iraq. Those with my expertise are almost nonexistent. It is difficult for women to get the approval of their family, relatives and society overall to work as an engineer. For instance, some of my close female friends urged me to request a work transfer to Fallujah hospital just to be close to my family , regardless of the fact that I will be giving up my current position for a less valued one. I do not undermine any job opportunity but studying biomedical engineering was my passion and I want to work in my sector. I love my job and the distance that I have to travel does not matter as long as I achieve my goals. I want to emphasize that unfortunately many Iraqi women nowadays continue to opt for the easiest option, yielding to familial and societal pressure.

Do you think including women in such structures in Iraq is important? How do you think this can be strengthened?

Yes, because they can display their real role and contribute with added value to the institutions. They should not be marginalized. Taking such responsibility is scary but I hope that more Iraqi women take the lead and are not afraid to make mistakes. I strongly believe in striving for excellence in my work. It is my humanitarian duty to do so whether I am a woman or a man. I think that organizing trainings targeting women especially in conservative Iraqi regions like Anbar to boost their self-confidence can help to encourage more women to be resilient and work enthusiasts.

What is your future inspiration for women in Iraq?

I hope that all women - and engineers in particular - work in their respective fields and accept challenges to be head of a committee or to lead teams on the ground.  I personally keep encouraging one of my best friends, who graduated with me as an engineer, to be courageous and apply to work in the engineering field instead of accepting a job that she is overqualified for. I hope that all Iraqi women take a step towards achieving their dreams and step out of their comfort zone.

About UNDP Iraq’s COVID-19 response

Since March 2020, UNDP has worked alongside the Government of Iraq and the international community on combating Coronavirus in Iraq. Measures under UNDP Iraq’s response package include increasing the testing capacity of laboratories, providing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers, establishing isolation wards, and undertaking assessments to establish post-COVID-19 recovery strategies. Focusing on the most vulnerable communities in Iraq, activities will be rolled out in 15 governorates.