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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Rights groups say new constitution falls short on women's rights

AMMAN, 9 March 2004 (IRIN) - A new interim constitution signed by an appointed Iraqi government on Monday is not adequate in protecting women’s rights, human rights groups say.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that in general, women’s rights are protected under the new constitution with a provision that prohibits sex discrimination. But it offered “deficient protection” in marriage, inheritance and children’s citizenship - areas where women in the Middle East have historically suffered discrimination, Leila Hull, an HRW worker, told IRIN from New York.

Specifically, the constitution does not allow women equal rights to marry, equal rights within marriage, and equal rights to divorce. It does not guarantee them the right to inherit wealth on an equal basis with men. And it fails to guarantee Iraqi women married to non-Iraqi men the right to give citizenship to their children, HRW said in a statement.

But similar rules governing women under Shariah, or Islamic, law practiced in neighbouring Jordan can still be worked out in court to a woman’s advantage, Hanan Banat, a lawyer and director of a safehouse run by the Jordanian Women’s Union told IRIN Aman.

For example, if a husband is not taking care of the house and family, a woman has the right to go to court,” Banat said. “If a woman was divorced without reason, she gets compensation. And she can legally ask for alimony if she gets custody of the children in a divorce.”

Women in Iraq should also have at least as many rights as various other minorities in the country, said Manal Omar, a spokesperson for Women for Women, a United States-based help group working in Iraq.

Women for Women worked with US-led administrators to make sure women were recognized politically in the new constitution. A provision calls for women to make up 25 percent of elected officials.

Following approval of the document Monday, Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious edict saying he had reservations about the interim constitution. Such a document will only become legitimate when adopted by an elected body, al-Sistani said. Al-Sistani has called for direct elections rather than the more complex plan of caucus-based voting proposed by administrators before sovereignty is to be handed to Iraqis on 30 June.

Sistani’s supporters on the appointed Iraqi Governing Council, said the charter gives minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims a veto over a permanent constitution to be drafted and voted on next year.

"This law places obstacles in the path of reaching a permanent constitution for the country that maintains its unity, the rights of its sons of all sects and ethnic backgrounds," al-Sistani said in a statement.

US administrator Paul Bremer has praised the document, which was originally to be signed Friday. The document provides safeguards for freedoms and human rights for ethnic and religious groups who were oppressed under the more than 30-year rule of Saddam Hussein. US administrators believe the document lays down foundations for democracy.

Of the council’s 25 members, most of the 13 Shi’ites refused to sign the document last week, saying they supported al-Sistani in his opposition.

Al-Sistani later told members they were welcome to sign the document, despite his reservations. Clerics such as al-Sistani and others appear to wield enormous influence in the new Iraq, an arena previously dominated by Sunnis.

A clause in the interim document says that if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces rejects a permanent constitution, it cannot be adopted, any new parliament would be dissolved, and a general election would be held.

A permanent constitution is expected to be drafted by a parliament to be elected by 31 January 2005.

Kurds make up a majority in three northern provinces. Kurds and Sunnis make up 30 to 40 percent of Iraq’s estimated 25-27 million people. Shi’ites say that clause gives as little as 10 percent of the population the power to block the will of the remaining 90 percent.

But Sunnis and Kurds say it protects the rights of minorities.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict



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