Oct 29, 2007, Lois Evezich — The Orange County Register
Once in a while a person appears in the public eye with a background so unique that the story must be told. Eileen Padberg is such a person, a woman with a vision that leaps over our country’s boundaries and makes a difference in a country that’s at war. Here is how this Laguna Niguel resident is changing lives of women in Iraq.
Q. How did you get involved with women’s projects here in the U.S. and in Iraq?
A. I have been an advocate for women most of my adult life, working with women to help them get elected to public office and out-front on significant public policy issues. I believed from the beginning that unless women had a stake in the economy, democracy would fail. I wrote the plan for Iraqi women with that in mind. As a known advocate for women, I was asked to write a plan that would be submitted as part of an overall proposal (in response to a Request for Proposal for a contractor that was bidding on the water reconstruction project). The early Pentagon contracts had a two sentence description that requested that any plan include the Iraqi women in the reconstruction process. It was assumed since I had done extensive training to help women run for public office, that I would know what was needed to meet the objective.
Q. What was the reaction of women in Iraq when they were presented with this opportunity?
A. The reaction was terrific. The Iraqi women were so excited that a woman from America would help them to succeed. My plan provided opportunities for Iraqi women by creating a job bank, career development training programs (Leadership/Management; Budget & Finance; English; Computer, Train-the-Trainer etc.) for women in government jobs and seminars to help Iraqi women owned businesses understand how to bid and win U.S. reconstruction contracts. The U.S. was providing $18.4 billion in reconstruction monies and I felt that this was a great way for women to build or expand their businesses by winning a few of these contracts.
Q. Did Iraqi women encounter resistance from Iraqi men when you organized leadership seminars?
A. No, not at all. Actually there was more resistance from our own U.S. contractors who did not understand that Iraqi women needed to work and to build their businesses and that they had the capabilities of doing almost anything. Women are 62% of the population – men have been killed in the many wars that Saddam had initiated – women have to feed their families.
Obviously the insurgents did not want women to succeed and because of that it made our seminars difficult to organize and dangerous for the women to attend. Iraqi women did not care about the danger, they wanted help from us.
Q. What did you do about the language barrier?
A. I recruited an Iraqi American young woman to go with me to Iraq. Her family had fled Iraq in 1991 and went back when the U.S. declared war. In addition to that, Iraqi women spoke pretty good English. Sometimes they had a hard time understanding English, but they did speak it.
Q. How did you prepare for your 22-month stay in Iraq?
A. I originally agreed to go for 6 months and ended up staying 22 months. The most important thing was to read as much as I could about Iraq and the women. In addition, I had to close down my successful consulting business. I met with each of my clients and explained that I was going to Iraq and that I had someone that I was recommending to replace me.
Q. What cultural differences did you have to learn about, such as shaking hands, women covering their hair, etc?
A. There were no cultural differences that I had to overcome. Iraqi women are just like us. They want a better life for their kids. They dress like us and they are very smart and clever. They greet each other just as women friends here greet each other – with a hug. Iraqi women had always had their own businesses (Mohammed’s wife was a business woman). It wasn’t until the insurgency had gotten really bad late in 2005 and 2006 that they started having to wear scarves over their hair for protection. Iraqi women are highly educated; there are more women engineers in Iraq than anywhere else in the Middle East. Iraq was the Paris of the Middle East. Women had the right to vote, the right to run for political office, the right to drive, the right to own property. They had work place harassment laws and even 5 years of maternity benefits! Iraqi women are very different than women in other parts of the Middle East.
Q. What were your thoughts, as a non-military person, when you were near the war zone?
A. It was quite stressful. I lived in the Green Zone, but traveled all over Iraq. The sound of gunfire and bombs and helicopters 24/7. I carried no gun. However, when I left the Green Zone I had a security convoy of a minimum of three SUV’s. I traveled throughout Iraq doing seminars for Iraqi women-owned businesses. My living arrangements were terrible – from Laguna Niguel to a high school classroom that I had to share with 4 other women.
We worked 11 hours a day, 6 ½ days a week. Our meals were taken in the mess hall – chicken, fish, meat all looked the same and tasted the same. There were rigid hours in which we could eat. At one point there was a $300,000 award for the head of an American woman. So you were always on guard. I had to wear a bullet proof vest that weighed almost 30 lbs; a bullet proof helmet that weighed 9 lbs – and in the summer it got to be 140 degrees!
Q. Did you work well with American men in Iraq? Military or contractors?
A. I think I worked well with American men, although I was always pushing them to hire Iraqi women; to understand that Iraqi women were capable and accomplished and able to do any engineering job or construction job. I had to push them very hard to include Iraqi women owned businesses in the list of bidders. I worked with contractors and military man – as well as Iraqi men.
Q. What do you see as the future of the American presence in Iraq?
A. I want to say right away that had we provided a “surge” of military 2 years ago, we would not be in the position that we are in today. The violence has gotten so bad that it is difficult to control it, however, it is working – unfortunately, it was too little and too late. Had we reviewed and readjusted our strategy 2 years ago we could have stabilized Iraq. Iraq is very secular – non-religious. Shiites and Sunni’s get along – before the February 2005 Iranian caused bombing of the Mosque in Samarra. Had we kept our commitment to the women of Iraq to help them seek freedom, we would have been way ahead. Had we not put thousands of Iraqis out of work and imported thousands of 3rd world country workers to do jobs that Iraqis could have done, we would have maintained the support and gratitude of the Iraqi people. Had we invested in the economy – we imported every piece of paper, every vegetable, every screw, hammer or pencils – instead of investing in the economy of Iraq; we would not be in this position today. I don’t know what the end is like for Iraq, but I do know that the Iraqis didn’t ask us to come to Iraq and it is our responsibility to clean up our mess and then leave. We are paying a lot of Congressmen a lot of money to solve problems – they have spent the last 3 years debating whether two men could live together instead of doing the job that they are way overpaid to do. It is way too simple to scream “stop funding the war” and “bring our troops home.” The Iraqis want peace – and sooner or later they will attain their dream.
Q. How can Iraqi women keep their foothold in construction, business, other professional areas that may seem new to them and to Iraqi men?
A. Though my program was such a small piece of the entire effort, we were responsible for training approximately 350 women owned businesses on how to bid and win contracts – resulting in a minimum of 500 substantial contracts for women owned businesses being awarded by our government – those contracts will go on and the women that have been successful in those contracts will continue to win more contracts. In addition, our program provided career development training programs for over 1,900 mid and senior level women in government. The majority of the Iraqi men did not oppose Iraqi women working. It is only the very religious that Don’t want women to be equal – much like here.