The Army Corps of Engineers is using reconstruction contracts as an opportunity to help bolster women's role in the Iraqi economy.
It's no secret that there is money to be made in Iraq reconstruction contracts. And the Army Corps of Engineers has been working to get women-owned Iraqi businesses their share of procurement opportunities. The goal is not only to strengthen their foothold in fields like construction and management, but also to keep Iraq ahead of the curve on women's rights in the Middle East.
For one Iraqi businesswoman the benefits have paid off with numerous Army contracts for engineering services. The entrepreneur, who requested anonymity for security reasons, worked from 1978 to 1994, and then stayed at home "because of the regime" before starting her own engineering company in 2005. "With [Saddam Hussein's government], they put a lot of restrictions and rules on women, not directly against women but in one way or another prevented us from doing business," she says. "The same rules exist still with some of the ministries, but with the Army everything is different." Now her construction, engineering and supply company is a regular bidder in the competitive arena of Iraq reconstruction contracting and has won more than $4 million in awards.
According to Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, Iraqi women historically have had more liberties than other women in the Middle East. Sheryl Lewis, the Army Corps' capacity development program manager in Washington, says this precedent makes women particularly important in the reconstruction effort. "Given Iraq's actually secular nature, in that women . . . were allowed to work and didn't have the restrictions that were placed on women in surrounding regional countries, it was always important to . . . empower women and promote their involvement in the workforce and help them to succeed," Lewis says.
The strong presence of women in Iraq's labor force deteriorated after the first Gulf War when sanctions severely constricted the economy. In the 1990s, the Ba'athist government began pushing women out of the labor force "in an effort to ensure employment for men," according to a November 2003 Human Rights Watch briefing paper. "By the last years of Saddam Hussein's government, the majority of women and girls had been relegated to traditional roles within the home."
The Army Corps' Federal Women's Program, established in 2005, aims to help reverse that trend. Azza Humadi, in- theater manager of the program, sees an inextricable link between the progress of women and the progress of the country as a whole. A soft-spoken, passionate Iraqi citizen, Humadi says there is no question that women want and deserve a prominent role in developing the Iraqi economy, and she believes the program offers that opportunity. "We have to move forward be-cause the country won't move forward if women are sitting home and locked and illiterate," she says. "I am working very hard to get those women involved in business so they can have their own contracts and run their own companies, because they can make a difference in Iraq."
With reconstruction projects taking place across Iraq and in every ministry, the opportunities are expansive. The Corps has seen its greatest success in building on local women's business expertise, much of it in the water sector. Iraq's Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works has 45,000 employees, about 60 percent of whom are women. In one initiative, the Corps drafted an army of Iraqi women for an intensive round of seminars and training programs and then dispatched them to the field to manage construction projects to rebuild Iraq's water and sewage system. The Corps has trained nearly 2,000 women and awarded more than 1.000 contracts to women-owned engineering and construction businesses.
The women's program is part of a larger capacity development plan, launched by the Defense Department's now-defunct Iraq Project and Contracting Office to help Iraqis rebuild, operate and maintain their infrastructure. The expertise needed from contractors runs the gamut from construction to budgetary, managerial and logistical skills. The plan includes mandates to train and hire Iraqis, including women and women-owned businesses. The mission statement says all design-build contracts, excluding those in the oil sector, "facilitate increasing Iraqi women's access to and/or ownership of productive assets . . . and include efforts to subcontract with Iraqi women and women-owned entities, and successful hiring and integration of Iraqi women."
The Corps enforces these requirements through award fees and databases that track primary contractors' progress on the women's initiative, Lewis says. Companies earn fees based on their ability to reach subcontracting goals. They must report monthly on the number of women trained or hired, training hours they received, what types of jobs they perform-managerial, technical or administrative-and what steps were taken to promote women. Companies also answer free-form questions on their good faith efforts, making the database a best-practices resource for the initiative.
Lewis and Humadi say companies are eager and committed to meeting goals and coming up with innovative ways to mentor Iraqi businesswomen. The in-creasing number of women-owned firms that can operate as prime contractors, they say, is a testament to the guidance of large American companies.
The Corps also has established a database of Iraqi women-owned businesses available as subcontractors and résumés of Iraqi women.
Building connections with key players in the procurement community strengthened women's business capabilities and helped the Corps get what it needs from contractors, including management and policy, professional, engineering, technical, supervisory, ad-ministrative and general labor services.
In this ever-growing network that Humadi and other program officials have helped build, American contractors mentor local women-owned businesses, often through matchmaking programs. These lead to subcontracting opportunities and bring women together with contracting professionals who can advise them on improving their bids and deciphering requests for proposals. "We really walk them through the whole thing," Lewis says. "It's an opportunity to provide mentoring and training on the whole process of bidding." The Corps also sponsors a webinar series on the more technical aspects of engineering contracts, including U.S. construction standards and specifications.
Ambassadors of Business
Several Iraqi businesswomen say collaboration over the course of the procurement process has allowed them to advance. "There are no other opportunities like this opportunity, to be frank with you," says one woman whose company specializes in barriers used for security. "We feel everyone wants to support us in what we're doing for ourselves and our families and our country." These business owners are careful to insist they receive no special treatment and compete on a level playing field. But they say networking with American contracting professionals gives them a better sense of what is expected on a project and why some proposals are rejected.
One woman says the insight they gain through the program makes them de facto ambassadors. "We transfer the training from inside the bases to outside the bases, from the green zone to the red zone," she says.
Now there is less dependence on prime contractors to create opportunities for local entrepreneurs. As major companies increasingly supported Iraqi startups, they developed a foothold to compete on their own. "Over time our strategy has changed," Lewis says. "We've gone to almost 100 percent direct contracting with Iraqi firms." Also, program manager Humadi works closely with the Defense Department's Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan on its Iraqi First program to increase the number of Iraqi prime contractors by strengthening their bids and guiding them through the award process.
While much of the focus is on how this program has benefited women on the ground, it also is a small step for American goals in Iraq. The reconstruction plan is designed both to rebuild and to give Iraqis the capacity to operate their own infrastructure as U.S. forces draw down. Managers hope that involving diverse parts of the population in the economy will make them stakeholders and increase stability.
Getting the Word Out
After three years, the Army Corps is just starting to publicize its women's program through formal channels, such as the State Department-run provincial reconstruction teams and the Defense Contracting Command. For the most part, Humadi has been a one-woman public relations team, getting the word out through her professional connections and women's and business associations. "It was literally Azza calling up women-owned businesses and saying, 'Do you want to come to this event?' " Lewis says. "She has a very good understanding of where all the women-owned business are, who's out there and who might want to participate." Humadi's dedication and far-reaching relationships with nongovernment organizations, Iraqi ministries and related associations have been valued by all sides.
Surprisingly, Humadi and Lewis say there has been little backlash from the support of women-owned businesses. But they could run into greater resistance as the program expands outside Baghdad, Lewis says, where religious and cultural beliefs about the role of women are stricter. "There are probably certain regions where there may be pushback, and it depends on their religion as well," she says.
Iraqi businesswomen have faced some personal roadblocks in establishing their companies and working with the U.S. government. One, who owns an electromechanical engineering company and is the mother of three, says she even kept her company a secret from family members to avoid their disapproval. Another, whose company focuses on operations and maintenance for sewers and water treatment, says she was threatened and narrowly escaped kidnapping. "I succeeded to run away, but had to change my workplace and also my family place to another city and work from other towns," she says. "This is the challenge we have here, the security situation, but we are still willing to do the work and look forward, just to help our people and ourselves."
Humadi says she tries to instill confidence in women who want to get involved, traveling across the country for conferences and events despite the danger: "I wanted to show people that I would risk my life building trust and credibility." It has paid off; participants in the program say they feel extremely comfortable coming to Humadi if they need information about anything-from contracts open for competition to late payments.
Business owners say their satisfaction comes not only from their financial success but also the way that success affects those around them. Many of the contracts awarded to Iraqi women through the Army Corps are multimillion-dollar construction or engineering projects that require substantial labor. "When you win a contract, it makes so many jobs-it can make 50 or 100 jobs for Iraqi workers," says the owner of the water and sewage treatment company. "The workers seem very happy when they hear that we got a job and that they're going to earn for their family."
That earning power grows stronger every year. In 2005, the Army awarded 70 contracts worth $7 million to Iraqi businesswomen. In 2007, the Army awarded them 1,266 contracts worth $180 million. Program officials organized nine contracting and networking conferences, two job fairs and seven webinars in 2007. Affiliates trained 350 Iraqi women contractors at nine sites across the country, including Camp Victory in Baghdad, and Mosul and Kirkuk in the north. "We're pretty proud of this program considering the amount of work that's been able to get done with a relatively small number of people," Lewis says. "I think it's pretty remarkable."
Iraqi participants hope that by making women a force in the economy, they can become a strong influence in other spheres as well. "If society sees successful women in business, they will at least have trust in women to take some position in politics," one entrepreneur says. "If we see great examples of businesswomen maybe we will also see great examples of political women as well."