Northern Iraq – Autonomous Region of Kurdistan
Peace is not settling over Iraq. Years of sanctions, armed conflicts and political instability have left their mark. Many women in central Iraq and in the autonomous region of Kurdistan (KRI) are very restricted when it comes to their opportunity to live a self-determined life and develop personally. Furthermore, women and girls fleeing from Syria and other parts of Iraq face even stronger threats of sexualised violence. At the same time, both the state and armed militia are increasingly targeting civil society forces. In spite of all this, women’s rights activists in central Iraq and the KRI are confronting the challenges and actively working to achieve a life of security and equality.
“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 enforced
The Iraqi constitution forbids any form of violence within families. However, there is insufficient political motivation to actually enforce this right to protection. 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, any approved religious group can settle issues relating to family and civil status according to religious laws. These laws, and the often conservative way they are interpreted, foster sexualised violence and discrimination against women and girls. Survivors of sexualised violence are generally economically dependent, leading to them being stigmatised, unable to escape the situations of violence, and with no opportunity to take legal action against it.
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 sexualised wartime violence against women in Iraq. In the past, for example, 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 kidnapped, raped and killed.
Yazidi women who became mothers as a consequence of rape during IS imprisonment are forced to leave behind their children in camps or orphanages, with those children not being recognised as members of the Yazidi faith. The women affected also then have to deal with the social stigma surrounding sexualised violence. In March 2021 the Iraqi parliament passed a law (Yazidi Female Survivor Law) intended to better protect these women.
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 has 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. 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 1.19 million people within Iraq who are displaced, of which 624,000 are in the KRI. Only about 15 per cent of these internally displaced people are living in camps. These are joined by a further 246,000 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 domestic violence, they are also often subjected to economic violence, such as 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.
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 mis-management, 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. In addition to family pressure, they are often subjected to brutal crimes and sexualised violence. In April 2021, several members of the LGBTIQ community in Sulaymaniah (KRI) were arrested and accused 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 Iraq and 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.
(Status of: 2021)
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 September 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 help survivors to process their experiences. Educational offers, such as literacy courses, and legal advice both assist women to lead a self-determined life.
EMMA raises awareness among specialist staff at public institutions of sensitive issues when dealing with survivors of violence. The organisation also conducts political advocacy work. In 2019, EMMA organised a major peace conference, bringing together representatives of government and academia, as well as members of national and international NGOs. Together with these participants, they discussed issues such as the situation of Yazidi women and the children who were born out of rape.
As part of a contextualised program on self-care and staff care, EMMA 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, even in the context of stigmatisation and many varied social, political and economic crises. In turn, this ensures that they continue to have sufficient reserves of strength to support survivors of sexualised and gender-based violence.
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 programs and the start of new ones. A Regional Office was set up in Dohuk in 2016 to coordinate the local activities.
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.
(Status of: 2021)