By Tamanna Yasmin.
The ISIS invasion and ensuing crisis has led to the displacement of millions and it is the women who are suffering the most. Women in Iraq are facing more turmoil than they have in many decades. Despite the struggle and the turbulent situation in Iraq, shelters for women fleeing from persecution or domestic violence are banned. The government maintains a hardline approach against opening shelters for battered women despite rising levels of violence against women and the security and political turmoil in Iraq. This article will explore the struggles Iraqi women are facing, why the government is choosing to neglect the safety of its female population and what local and international organizations are doing to battle the issue.
What is most shocking about the government’s regressive stance on women’s security is that Iraqi women were once among the most progressive in the Middle East. But the past three decades in Iraq – characterised by conflicts, economic embargoes and civil strife – have seen schools obliterated and gender-based violence dominate headlines. The progression of women has been forgotten to the extent such that it is now thought that women shelters “are thought of as encouraging women to disobey their husbands and daughters to disobey their parents. This leads to the presumption that a shelter – a place where a group of immoral women reside without a male guardian – is likely a brothel” according to Yanar Mohammed director of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). This attitude reflects the high levels of patriarchy and misogyny in Iraqi society and more importantly the frightening level of neglect and disconcert in securing women’s safety. It is shocking that even a time of such danger and threat from ISIL, patriarchal attitudes and behaviours prevail, even at the level of government.
Mohammed spoke before the Security Council of the United Nations to raise awareness of the plight of women, and to demand a stop to the violence against women, girls and other marginalized groups. To understand the crisis for Iraqi women today, you cannot ignore what has happened beginning in 2003. A government was formed as a result of politics of division based on sect, ethnicity and gender. This government failed to uphold basic rule of law, allowing extremists to take up positions of power. Since then families in Iraq are being ripped apart and many young women have been abducted. One such case is that of Safiyyah whose four daughters aged 16-23, were abducted in 2013 to be sold at the bride market when the family was attempting to flee the Anbar Province of Iraq. One can’t help but think that had there been safe shelters for women Safiyyah’s families would not have been torn apart so brutally.
To battle the problem that is being ignored by the government, Madre, an NGO, and OWFI run an underground railroad, an escape network that saves women in danger. Through a community of local activists, MADRE and OWFI are able to sustain viable safe passage for women and girls fleeing violence and ISIS control. They provide humanitarian aid and shelter. A campaign launched by Organisation for Women’s Freedom Iraq and supported by MADRE has been prepared by a very wide range of women’s rights and civil society organizations in Iraq. This campaign brings to light the issue of government’s ban on women’s shelters. The campaign is supported by many local civil society groups and NGOs and most of women’s rights organizations.
An open letter was submitted to the United Nations Security Council in October 2016, which was signed by a whole host of Iraqi organizations. In this letter, the NGOs express concern about the Government of Iraq’s policy prohibiting Iraqi NGOs from legally providing shelter to individuals and families fleeing conflict-related gender-based violence. The letter highlights the ambiguity that exists in Iraqi policy which doesn’t make clear whether or not it is in the ambit of Iraqi NGO’s to provide shelter. Strictly speaking Iraqi law does not prohibit women’s shelters per se. The Combating Trafficking in Persons Law of 2012 states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs should create shelters to assist the survivors of human trafficking and exploitation. Regrettably, government officials have interpreted this policy to mean that only the government can run shelters.
As such, the open letter calls on the Government of Iraq to issue a much needed directive clarifying that Iraqi NGOs may provide much-needed shelter and other services to conflict-related gender-based violence survivors. In the brutal landscape of Iraq’s conflict-this is a decision that the Iraqi government and the UN has to face. The work done by organizations like MADRE and OWFI are only the initial steps to protect Iraqi women. There is still a long way to go until Iraqi women gain the position they once held in society.
Read more about Madre and OWFI’s work here and learn how you get involved.