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News || Wednesday, 01 December 2010

Iraqi Women's Groups Use SMS to Strengthen Communities

In Northern Iraq, it's not uncommon for women to feel isolated from their peers. Male voices still dominate many communities, and political instability has made travel between towns difficult. As a result, many female Iraqis have never had the chance to connect with friends or colleagues from other parts of the country--and work together to tackle some of the challenges they face as women.

But now that reality is changing: In early September, Souktel and aid agency Mercy Corps launched a new mobile phone information service to support female leaders in Northern Iraq. Part of Mercy Corps' "Empowering Women Peacebuilders" project, the service lets local leaders of women's groups send each other key news and information by text message (or 'SMS').

"The goal is simple," says Souktel's Operations Manager Amber Houssian: "Use basic technology to help women network with each other, get access to leadership training together, and develop joint projects that strengthen their communities by promoting tolerance and reconciliation. Houssian explains: "If a local school leader in Kirkuk wants to start a peace-building program for girls from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, she can use the service to send a message to her peers asking for help. Fellow service users can then contact her directly with suggestions about resources, potential participants, safe places to hold the meetings--and she leverages the wisdom of an entire network.

Adds Houssian: "Before we started this service, female leaders had few ways to get this kind of information. In many parts of Northern Iraq women have limited options for social networking and community participation. But since most women in the North have cell phones, text messaging is an extremely effective way for them to exchange knowledge and stay connected.

She continues: "For Mercy Corps, we created specialized software that lets their staff set up 'mailing lists' of women's mobile phone numbers: They group users according to location, interests, and more; each list gets labeled with a code--like '202' for women teachers in Kirkuk. Then, staff and local users can type a text message, enter the code they want, and the message instantly gets sent to hundreds of people on that specific list. The whole service can be managed from any type of basic mobile phone; no need for web access, iPhones, or anything like that".

Mercy Corps Chief of Party Muhaio Parpieva believes that this 'anytime, anywhere' safe access to information can make a huge difference in the lives of the local women she serves. "In a recent meeting," she explains, "one of the female leaders told me: 'I never understood how information can help build solidarity as I do now. I believe that women united by a dream for peace and connected though technology can truly change their communities for the better'. We hope this mobile phone service gives them the tools to do just that".

Learn more about Mercy Corps' work in Iraq: http://mercycorps.org/countries/iraq