On International Women's Day, amidst Pope Francis's visit to Iraq, we caught up with the Mayor of Alqosh, Lara Youssif Zara. We talked about what it means to increase women's political participation and her vision to support the people of Iraq return safely to their homes.
Perched atop a hill, the quaint sub-district of Alqosh has a history that spans over three millennia. It is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, from Christians and Shabaks to Yezidis and Muslims.
For the past four years, Lara Youssif Zara, originally from Baghdad, has been the mayor of the sub-district. Being the first female mayor in the region is seen as a massive stride forward for Iraqi women in their pursuit of gender parity.
Lara strongly advocates for including more women in all aspects of life. “We need more women in decision-making roles to ensure gender equality across the board,” Lara says from behind the large wooden desk in her office. “I was fortunate to have been brought up in an empowering environment that enabled me to map out a political career for myself.”
According to Lara, engaging more women will result in better accountability for them. But she also recognizes that Iraq is far from realizing this dream. For instance, a 2020 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) ranked Iraq 70th globally in terms of women’s representation in parliament. "I hope to lead by example," she says with a smile.
For the thirty-nine-year-old leader, it has been an uphill climb to win the trust of Alqosh's residents. "In the beginning, when I joined the office, it was difficult. The society had not witnessed a woman lead before and they were not receptive. Nevertheless, with complete support from my family, I have over the last four years won their hearts and minds by showing what I can do for them," shares Lara.
In 2014, ISIL came close to Alqosh, threatening its people to leave the region. Still, many of them, especially young people and women, risked their lives to stay and protect their homes. Amongst them was Lara. She recalls, "I was born in this land, Iraq is my home, and I belong here. It has not been easy to live in conflict and uncertainty. I decided to face the challenges head-on and conquer them instead." She hopes to do her part to make Iraq safer for people to return and feel at home regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
During the conflict, over 50 Assyrian families from Mosul and Baghdad fled to Alqosh for safety. An estimated 4,600 people currently call the town home. During her tenure as mayor, Lara has focused on developing the 42 villages under the Alqosh sub-district by building homes and a courthouse, connecting key roads and utilizing fertile lands to create livelihood opportunities for its people. On her plans as the mayor, she says, "I am working to build a large highway so that we can increase our trade within the governates, along with opening a maternity ward."
Lara has a clear vision for Alqosh. She wants to build the region into a flourishing and safe space for her citizens. "I want to work with more women, especially from female-headed households, to create sustainable livelihood opportunities through skill development and quality education," she says.
UNDP’s stabilization programme supports the people of Alqosh by rehabilitating infrastructure for key public services such as the courthouse, public health centre and civil status building. The programme has also supported the full-scale rehabilitation of educational institutions such as the Alqosh Secondary School and Alqosh Kindergarten.
This has been possible thanks to the commitment, cooperation and generous contributions of partners such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Lara wants to pass the baton at the end of her five-year tenure as mayor to create more space for young people, especially women, to take on leadership positions. Lara strongly believes in an inclusive approach to building Iraq back from the years of conflict the country has endured.
Echoing the call of leaders and concerned citizens like Lara, Pope Francis made a four-day visit to Iraq calling for an end to violence and increasing the role of minority communities with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities. Three years after liberation from ISIL, this comes at a pivotal period in Iraq, with more than a million Iraqis still displaced.
Responding to this growing need, UNDP continues to work alongside the Government of Iraq and its people to create the necessary conditions for safe and dignified returns, with a greater focus on leaving no one behind. Reaffirming our commitment, UNDP Resident Representative Zena Ali Ahmad also met with key religious leaders in February to discuss an inclusive approach to stabilization and development priorities for the region.