Iraq: Violence against minority women is rife and poorly addressed
According to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reporting to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Iraq in 2010, women from minorities are ‘the most vulnerable section of Iraqi society’. Their minority status and gender identity put them at particular risk in a female population that is already experiencing great trauma.
Violence against women in Iraq has been an increasing problem since the conflict began in 2003. Figures released by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) as part of a 2010 campaign against gender-based violence highlighted the scale of the issue. One in five women (21 per cent) in Iraq aged 15–49 has suffered physical violence at the hands of her husband; 14 per cent of women who suffered physical violence were pregnant at the time; 33 per cent have suffered emotional violence; and 83 per cent have been subjected to controlling behaviour by their husbands. The problem is compounded by the sense of shame attached to being exposed to such acts, and the corresponding reluctance to report against family members for fear of reprisals. Where crimes are reported, they are poorly handled by police, medical and judicial authorities, UNAMI said.
Women in Iraq also fear abduction and rape. Men from all sides of the conflict, including Iraqi and US-led coalition troops and members of security forces, have been responsible for such crimes. MRG has reported that women, including those from minorities, who survive these ordeals can find themselves ostracized from their families and communities; some are punished or killed by their own relatives; and others are pressured to commit suicide by burning themselves.
There are also reports of women from minority groups being forced into marriage outside their faith communities. Minorities including Sabean Mandaeans and Yezidis prohibit marriage outside their religion, and women who do so must renounce their faith. Caught in a politically sensitive situation in the disputed territory in northern Iraq, Yezidi activists have reported that since 2003, there have been around 30 known cases of Yezidi women being abducted and forced to marry members of the Kurdish security force Asayish. In correspondence with the author, a Yezidi activist reported that Yezidi families are threatened with reprisals if women and girls refuse marriage with militia members. Evidence from the Iraqi Minorities Organization (IMO), an umbrella group that includes members from a range of minorities, confirms that minority women are subject to both domestic and politically-motivated violence. IMO also describes the levels of fear minority women face in their daily lives, and the measures they take to protect themselves; measures which are to the detriment of their religious and cultural identities. For example, in an unstable and increasingly conservative Islamic environment, non-Muslim women feel forced to wear the hijab in public to avoid being identified and targeted by extremists. They also refrain from wearing traditional accessories and make-up in public places in certain parts of the country. Christian women in Kirkuk and Mosul reported feeling extremely insecure outside their homes.
Iraq has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is also a signatory to the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. However, access to justice for such crimes is a particular problem for women from minorities, as it is for women and minorities in Iraq in general.
The Iraqi Constitution mandates that women are equal to men. However, certain constitutional provisions and other pieces of legislation discriminate against women. Article 41 of the Constitution allows an individual the right to choose what personal status rules they want to follow based on their ‘religions, sects, beliefs, or choices’, a provision which potentially forces women to submit to discriminatory personal status codes. According to a 2010 report by the US-based think tank, Freedom House, ‘Article 41 is currently suspended after women’s advocates, NGOs, members of parliament, legal professionals, and the judiciary protested against the provision, viewing it as a way to increase sectarian divisions and impose undue restrictions on women’.
In practice, according to minority activists, disputes relating to marriage and the family are settled inside the family and community itself, rather than being taken to the police or the courts. Moreover, despite Article 29 of the Constitution, which prohibits violence in the family, schools and in society, under the Iraqi Penal Code a husband is legally entitled to punish his wife ‘within certain limits prescribed by law or custom’. The NGO Social Watch has highlighted other provisions in the Penal
Code that compound and institutionalize violence against women. Under the code, rape is a private offence; therefore the state cannot take any action without the consent of the complainant or a legal guardian. Article 398 holds that the perpetrator can be excused of rape and sexual assault if he marries the victim. In the absence of any provision to the contrary, this applies even in cases where the victim is a minor. Sentences for kidnapping and abduction can also be avoided through marriage.
The conditions faced by women, and the particular vulnerability of women from minorities, make it extremely difficult for them to leave the house, access employment and education, or take part in any kind of recreation in public including sports, activists have reported. Access to employment in particular is a pressing concern, given that, in 2009, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that 1 in 10 Iraqi households are headed by women, more than 80 per cent of whom are widows. According to the BBC, this is around one million women, although it is not known how many of these are from minority groups.
Campaigners have highlighted the need to educate women about their rights in order to stem their increasing vulnerability. UNAMI has noted that many women have little or no knowledge about the (limited) options that are available to them. The US Embassy, through its Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Nineveh, has supported a series of six seminars on minority women’s legal rights across the region, attended by 150 participants from communities including Christians, Shabak, Turkmen and Yezidis.
According to UNAMI, the Iraqi authorities are also taking steps towards addressing the situation. A domestic violence bill is being developed at national level and in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controlled area, while special units in both areas have been established to develop a national database of cases of violence against women. Whatever measures are in place, it is vital that the specific threats facing women from minority communities do not go ignored.
This text was published in the 2011 State of the World Minority. The whole publication can be downloaded here.
Photo: Chaldean-Assyrian woman in Al Qosh, Iraq. Credit: Chris Chapman/MRG.