Women's Rights in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan – Iraq
Peace is not settling on Iraq. Years of sanctions, armed conflicts and political instability have left their mark. In both parts of the country – central Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) – patriarchal norms and ongoing conflicts make it impossible for many women to live a self-determined life.
Gender-based violence widespread in Iraq
Gender-based violence is widespread in Iraq. In particular, women and girl refugees, many of whom are from Syria or displaced within Iraq, face strong threats of sexualised violence. Religious fundamentalists, the state, and armed militia are increasingly targeting civil society organisations and activists who work to uphold women’s and human rights. In spite of the threats, activists are continuing to stand up for an equitable and safe life for women and girls.
“If we can help make the women’s lives meaningful again, that aids their recovery.“
1. Right to protection from violence not being upheld
The Iraqi constitution forbids any form of violence within families. In the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, Iraq, there is a specific Family Law passed in 2011 which grants women statutory protection against gender-based violence, including female genital cutting. However, husbands also have the right to punish their wives, and a rapist can escape prosecution for their crime if they marry the woman they committed violence against. There are only a few safe houses for women. These are poorly equipped and can rarely offer appropriate support measures for survivors.
Conservative religious norms
Women’s rights are opposed by conservative and religious norms, growing extremism, and militarism. So women and girls in Iraq continue to experience violence and discrimination.
In central Iraq and in the KRI there is a religious legislation which means any approved religious group can settle issues relating to family and civil status. These laws, and the often-conservative interpretation of them, foster sexualised violence and discrimination against women and girls. Survivors are both stigmatised and deprived of opportunities to escape situations of violence or take legal action against it, since they are generally economically dependent.
The crimes committed against the Yazidi and other minority groups (such as Christians, Shabaks and Turkmen) in 2014 by the so-called Islamic State (IS) are just the most recent chapter in the history of sexualised wartime violence against women in Iraq. Thousands of women and girls were abducted, raped and sold into slavery. Some 2,800 women and children are still missing.
The United Nations (UN), the Parliament of the European Union (EU) and many national governments have recognised the systematic genocide against the Yazidi and classed the acts of the IS as crimes against humanity. Germany followed suit in January 2023.
The crimes against Yazidi women and girls are part of a history of atrocities against Iraqis. In the 1980s during the Al-Anfal campaign, the dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the use of sexualised violence against Kurdish women. And after the US invasion and collapse of the Hussein regime in 2003, human rights organisations reported large numbers of women being kidnapped, raped and killed.
In the meantime, the silence has finally been broken and people are speaking about the children born out of the rapes in IS imprisonment. However, many Yazidi women are still forced to leave their children behind in orphanages, camps or even with IS families. These boys and girls are not recognised as members of the Yazidi faith. Additionally, their mothers also have to deal with the social stigma of being a survivor of sexualised violence.
Laws intended to improve protection for survivors
In March 2021 the Iraqi parliament passed a law (Yazidi Female Survivor Law) intended to better protect female survivors from the Yazidi community and other minority groups such as Christians, Shabaks and Turkmen. This law also recognises the strategic rape and enslavement by the so-called Islamic State as a genocide and crime against humanity.
The law also foresaw the establishment of a General Directorate of Survivors’ Affairs with responsibility for compensation for survivors within Iraq and in the diaspora. However, the law is not being implemented sufficiently. The procedure to apply for compensation is expensive and bureaucratic. During this long process, survivors are not given access to stress- and trauma-sensitive psychosocial or legal support which would help protect them from the risk of retraumatisation.
As well as sexualised wartime violence, there is also the violence inflicted upon many women and girls in Iraq by male relations. The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence within families, whose consequences can still be felt. According to the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq, in the first half of 2022, more than 10,000 cases of violence within a partnership or family were registered.
Economic desperation also leads to many women and girls being married against their will or at a young age. Furthermore, in both central Iraq and in the KRI there are cases of femicide, but the murders are rarely prosecuted or documented.
In total, some 290,000 refugees live in Iraq. These are joined by more than one million internally displaced people. Many of them fled the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2014. Today, the destroyed villages and towns still lack electricity and water, hospitals and schools. The state also cannot provide the residents with any guarantee of safety.
Refugees and displaced women are more severely affected by gender-based and sexualised violence. They are subjected to partnership violence and early marriage, as well as economic violence, which includes deliberate withholding of money or resources. Shame, stigma or the loss of social networks are among the reasons which prevent them from taking action against this violence.
Poverty and a lack of prospects
The life of many refugees or displaced people is characterised by a lack of prospects and increasing economic pressure, felt in particular by women and girls and within female-led households. The number of suicides in the region has been increasing at a worrying rate since the end of 2020. And in the same period there is also a growing number of people in the host communities who are taking their own life.
In central Iraq there are just 1.3 hospital beds and less than one doctor per 1,000 people. In the KRI the figures are 1.5 beds and 1.4 doctors. Often there is a lack of even the most basic medicines. The crisis in the healthcare sector is the result of years of mismanagement, corruption and under-investment.
Most Iraqis have no health insurance, so they have to bear the costs of illness themselves. Patriarchal norms, stigma and shame all make access to health services more difficult for women who experienced sexualised or gender-based violence.
Even if the prospects for women’s rights in Iraq sometimes seem hopeless in light of the ongoing violence, there is at least one cause for hope: the youth. Iraq is a young country. Many young men and women in central Iraqand the KRI are determined and united in their struggle to make their country safe and just.
For decades, women’s rights activists in Iraq and the KRI have been working for the rights and protection of women and girls. In the KRI they have succeeded in having state institutions established to oversee the implementation of women’s rights. In 2011 a law was passed to criminalise domestic violence in the KRI. In central Iraq the passage of a similar law has been blocked by the parliament since 2019.
Iraq was one of the first countries in the region to devise a national action plan to implement UN Resolution 1325. A first Strategy Plan against Gender-based Violence was drawn up at the beginning of 2022. However, activists are increasingly at risk because of their work. Conservative groups are attacking women’s rights activists on social media and offline in public, too. The attacks are vicious enough to lead some organisations to cease their activities. Some activists have even had to leave the country.
Facts & figures from our practical work
- EMMA - Organisation for Human Development, Consortium partner
- The Lotus Flower
- Kurdish Autonomous Region
- Advocacy, public awareness work and prevention work for protection of women and girls
- Stress- and trauma-sensitive offers for survivors
- Networking for activists, feminist organisations and other networks
Funding and funders:
- German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ GmbH)
- Own resources
Source: Annual Report 2022
Since 2014, medica mondiale has been committed to supporting women and girls affected by violence in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The region has taken in many internally displaced persons in addition to refugees from Syria. In 2016, medica mondiale opened an office in Dohuk to coordinate its local activities. Together with our partner organisations, we work in the following three fields of activity:
Awareness-raising and political advocacy work
The women’s rights organisation EMMA pursues the aims of eliminating gender-based violence and empowering women. EMMA raises awareness among governmental institutions of sensitive issues when dealing with survivors of violence. The organisation also conducts intensive political advocacy work and networking: for the prevention of violence, the protection and rights of women and girls. EMMA sensitises the public and the social environment of survivors to their difficult situation, needs and rights.
Raising awareness for the situation of Yazidi IS survivors
EMMA explicitly engages for Yazidi women and their children born during or after their captivity by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The women’s rights organisation The Lotus Flower addresses Yazidi IS survivors, their families, as well as relevant community, public and political actors through targeted awareness-raising, campaigning and advocacy work on women's rights and sexualised violence. Furthermore medicamedica mondiale advocates at institutional and political level for the application of the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach in the national health system.
Supporting women and girls integrally
In Erbil, Dohuk and Shekhan, our partner organisation EMMA has set up direct contact points for women affected by or threatened with violence. Offers of psychosocial support help survivors to process their experiences. Through educational offers, such as literacy courses, and legal advice women learn to lead a self-determined life. They can continue their education and start their own business to establish a livelihood. With mobile advice for women in refugee/IDP accommodation, EMMA wants to reach those women for whom access to their rights and protection is all the more difficult, partly because there are fundamentally few services for survivors and providing support is generally difficult.
Since 2021, medica mondiale and its partner organisation The Lotus Flower have been empowering girls and women affected by violence: Boxing and self-defense classes are designated to improve their self-confidence, well-being, physical and mental health and fitness.
Qualifying healthcare professionals
As part of a transnational training program, the Dohuk Regional Office is training healthcare professionals in the trauma-sensitive approach to dealing with survivors of sexualised violence. Together with local decision makers, medica mondiale is working to see the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach established as a future standard in state healthcare facilities. Survivors are aimed to gain better access to stress- and trauma-sensitive health services.
medica mondiale works to create and maintain safe spaces for feminist reflection, connection, solidarity and self and collective care for activists and women's organisations. Currently, there are repeated setbacks for women's rights organisations. For example, conservative groups are attacking women's rights activists online and offline. Given this tense situation and shrinking spaces for civil society, it is particularly important to strengthen women's alliances and alliances in the region.
Sustainable support: self and staff care
The "Staff Care Concept" developed by EMMA makes an important contribution to activists being able to continue working despite the enormous pressure they are facing. It helps them to continue to have sufficient reserves of strength to support survivors of sexualised and gender-based violence. This is particularly important as the teams operate in a context of stigmatisation and many varied social, political and economic crises.