Northern Iraq – Autonomous Region of Kurdistan
Peace is not settling on Iraq. Years of sanctions, armed conflicts and political instability have left their mark. Many women in central Iraq and in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in the north are very restricted when it comes to their opportunities for a self-determined life and personal development.
Gender-based violence is widespread in Iraq
Women and girl refugees from Syria and inside Iraq face strong threats of sexualised violence. Gender-based violence is widespread in Iraq. Religious fundamentalists, the state and armed militia are increasingly targeting civil society forces who work to uphold women’s and human rights. In spite of these threats, women’s rights defenders are continuing to stand up for an equitable and safe life for women and girls.
“If we succeed in giving a new meaning to a woman’s life it helps her to recover.“
1. Right to protection from violence not being upheld
The Iraqi constitution forbids any form of violence within families. In the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq there is also a specific family law passed in 2011 which grants women statutory protection against gender-based violence, including female genital cutting, making this violence a criminal act. However, there is insufficient political motivation to actually enforce this right to protection.
Conservative religious norms
Further obstacles to women’s rights include conservative religious values, the growth of extremism, and militarism. So women and girls in Iraq continue to experience violence and discrimination. In particular, the country is seeing increases in domestic and sexualised violence in the wake of armed conflicts and ongoing insecurity.
In central Iraq and in the KRI the religious legislation 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 of sexualised violence 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 in 2014 by the so-called Islamic State are just the most recent chapter in the history of s sexualised wartime violence against women in Iraq. The UN, EU Parliament and many national governments have recognised the systematic genocide against the Yazidi and classed the acts of the IS as crimes against humanity. In particular this applies to the crimes against Yazidi women and girls. They have been abducted, raped and sold into slavery.
In the 1980s during the Al-Anfal campaign, Saddam Hussein ordered the use of sexualised violence against Kurdish women. And after the US invasion and collapse of the regime in 2003, human rights organisations reported large numbers of women being abducted, raped and killed.
Yazidi women who became mothers as a consequence of rape during IS imprisonment are still forced to leave behind their children in camps or orphanages. Those children are not recognised as members of the Yazidi faith. The women affected now additionally have to deal with the social stigma surrounding 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 survivors from the Yazidi community and other minorities. This law also recognises the strategic rape and enslavement of Yazidis 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, here, too, the law is not being implemented sufficiently.
As well as sexualised wartime violence, there is also the violence inflicted upon many women and girls in Iraq by male relatives. The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence within families. Two thirds of the responsible social authorities reported an increase in the numbers of women seeking help. According to the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq, more than 10,000 cases of domestic violence were registered in the first half of 2022.
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 there are more than a million people within Iraq who are displaced or refugees, of which 659,000 are in the KRI. Only about 15 per cent of the internally displaced people are living in camps. These are joined by a further 258,000 people who fled from the war in Syria. Refugees and displaced women are more severely affected by gender-based and sexualised violence. As well as being subjected to domestic violence and forced early marriage, they also experience economic violence, such as deliberate withholding of money. 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’s IDP/refugee shelters has been increasing at a worrying rate since the end of 2020. And in the same period there has also been a growing number of people in the host communities taking their own lives.
In central Iraq there are just 1.2 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.
Ways of living that deviate from traditional gender roles are not accepted by the majority of Iraqi society. For many LGBTIQ+ people, this means they are not free to choose their identity or partner.
Gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people
In addition to family pressures, LGBTIQ+ people are often subjected to brutal crimes and sexualised violence, even from the police. These crimes generally remain unpunished. In contrast, in April 2021 many LGBTIQ+ activists in Sulaymaniyah (KRI) were arrested for the supposed crime of “immorality”.
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 years, women’s rights activists in Iraq 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.
(Status of: 10/2022)
Facts & figures from our practical work
- EMMA - Organisation for Human Development, Consortium partner
- Haukari, with local partner organisations Khanzad and PDO.
- Kurdish Autonomous Region
- Establishment of a protective environment for women affected by violence and their children
- Development of a concept for staff self-care in a conflict region
- Support and counselling for women with gender-specific experiences of violence in IDP/refugee shelters and host communities
Funding and funders:
- German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ GmbH)
- Own resources
Source: Annual Report 2021
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.
Since 2018, medica mondiale has been working together with the women’s rights organisation EMMA. It pursues the aims of eliminating gender-based violence and empowering women. In Erbil, Dohuk and Shekhan, EMMA has set up direct contact points for women affected by or threatened with violence. Offers of psychosocial support can stabilise and help survivors to process their experiences. Educational offers, such as literacy courses, and legal advice both assist women to lead a self-determined life. 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.
As part of the cooperation with The Lotus Flower since 2021, girls and women affected by violence are empowered: Literacy, boxing and self-defense classes are designated to improve their self-confidence, well-being, physical and mental health and fitness.
Our feminist partner organisation 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 explicitly engages for Yazidi women and their children born during or after their captivity by the so-called Islamic State (IS). EMMA also sensitises the social environment of survivors to their difficult situation, needs and rights.
Raising awareness for the situation of Yazidi IS survivors
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 medica mondiale advocates at institutional and political level for the application of the Stress- and Trauma- sensitive Approach in the national health system.
As part of a programme on self-care and staff care, EMMA in close cooperation with medica mondiale is developing and implementing measures for individuals and for the organisation as a whole. These help their teams to maintain a constructive and cooperative approach in the long term. In turn, this ensures that they 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.
In the Kurdish region of Dohuk medica mondiale is training healthcare staff on the issues of sexualised violence and trauma-sensitive psychosocial counselling. In 2016 we reinforced this approach with the continuation of existing programmes and the start of new ones. Since then, a Regional Office was set up in Dohuk to coordinate the local activities.
Stress- and trauma-sensitivity in the health sector
As part of a transnational training programme, 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.
Through needs-oriented organisational development measures, medica mondiale contributes to the organisational empowerment, stability and sustainability of the work of its partner organisations. We support, for example, the development of strategies, guidelines and safety management systems as well as the strengthening of expertise and methodological skills.
(Status Focal points of work of: 07/2022)