UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Focus on women's rights
BAGHDAD, 8 March 2005 (IRIN) - If there is something that Iraqi women want most right now, it is recognition and respect in a country where for years they have suffered discrimination and humiliation, either from the government, or at the hands of conservative Arabic society, experts say.
In February, UK-based human rights NGO, Amnesty International (AI), released a report which highlighted the fear of violence many Iraqi women have expressed.
Although Shari'at law was not adopted in the past, women faced discrimination during Saddam Hussein's 30-year regime, the AI report said. There was a poor record of defending their rights by the government, they were denied justice and protection from violence in the country and had a general lack of freedom in a conservative society.
But during the old days it wasn't all bad as women were at least in a secure environment, according to Iraqi women's activists. They weren't obliged to cover up or wear veils or the traditional Abaya cloak. But Amnesty adds that women were subjected to sexual abuse, including rape as many of them were accused of being members or relatives of activists or from some ethnic or religious groups not favoured by Saddam.
According to official statistics women make up 60 percent of the population. The country is a signatory to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. But there are still serious concerns over whether it is being implemented wholeheartedly.
ALLEGED ABUSES TODAY
Although some steps have been taken to improve women's position in Iraqi society by the new authorities, there are reports that even today women are still subjected to sexual violence. Some women detained by US forces or national guards have allegedly been sexually abused or raped, according to the AI report and witnesses interviewed.
"I was leaving Fallujah during the last conflict when the national guards broke into my home and took my 16-year-old daughter. They took her inside and raped her, I tried to do something and was hit by one of them, it is the first time I have talked about this because of our traditions but I don't want it to happen to other girls," Um Sabah, not her real name for security reasons, told IRIN with tears in her eyes.
AI claims that several women detained by US troops had spoken in interviews with them of beatings, threats of rape, humiliating treatment and long periods of solitary confinement. "Women have been subjected to sexual threats by members of the US-led forces and some women detained by US forces have been sexually abused, possibly raped," it added.
However, a US coalition senior official told IRIN that if there was proof of this kind of behaviour they would investigate it and in the case of confirmation of sexual abuse, soldiers would be severely punished. He added that they hadn't received any reports of such cases.
HONOUR KILLINGS CONTINUE
According to the AI report, honour killings (where a female is killed by a relative to protect the honour of the family) are still are being carried out. Many women and girls remain at risk of death from male relatives if they are accused of behaviour believed to have brought shame on the family. Cases of young girls killed by their fathers due to the loss of "virginity" are common, the AI report said.
There are no accurate national statistics, but according to female activists, honour killings are more common in the south of the country due to the heavy concentration of conservative Muslim Shi'ites there.
Kurdish Women's Action Against Honour Killings (KWAHK) a network of Kurdish and non-Kurdish activists, lawyers and academic researchers, say that in northern Iraq, more than 4,000 women have been maimed and killed to date in the name of honour and that the killers have not been brought to justice.
Saddam Hussein also attempted to maintain legitimacy after the Gulf war in 1991 by appeasing religious fundamentalists and other conservatives. He brought in a law that granted immunity to men who committed honour crimes. More than 4,000 women were victims of this law according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
The threat of honour killings still looms large. Um Sabah sent her daughter to Syria, afraid that her father would discover what had happened and to protect her from an honour killing as male relatives may accuse her of bringing shame on the family. "I cannot lose my daughter and at least there she can be safe from this horrendous tradition," she exclaimed.
POOR SECURITY AND LACK OF PROTECTION
Poor security in the country has prevented women from travelling freely and many are unable to go to school, universities or work. Many have also received threats and students have delayed their studies for security reasons. Others who don't have a choice, are going out less frequently in fear that at any time they could be targeted by insurgents or kidnappers.
Casual violence against women remains. In 2004, the first group of female soldiers was trained in Jordan and when they returned to take up their positions they say they were humiliated by their male colleagues. According to one woman, she was punched in the face by a male officer and although the incident was reported to the interim government court, no action has been taken.
"My dream was to be an important army officer in this country but the old mentality of all the men in the country, especially the ones in the army is very difficult to modernise," Maj. Huda al-Kham, who resigned after the incident, told IRIN. "I can do my job with quality and capacity and when they see that, they [men] just become angry and cannot accept the idea to have an order from a woman. The new constitution should change this, we deserve our rights," she added.
Maj. Al-Kham is just one of the few cases of discrimination found in Iraq and many women say they now also fear that talk of introducing Shari'at law will discriminate against them.
MOVES TOWARDS EQUALITY
Among the recommendations made in the AI report, the organisation called on Iraqi authorities and members of the interim national assembly to ensure that the new constitution and all Iraqi legislation contains prohibitions on all forms of discrimination against women and effective measures to protect them from violence.
Amnesty said in the report that it wasn't trying to compare Iraq between Saddam's time and now, but that the situation of women then was very bad and it is still very bad.
Leading local women said that if it wasn't for the temporary constitution ensuring women should have 25 percent of national assembly seats, they would have had no voice in the country. In addition, every third candidate on the party lists had to be a woman.
"Our society can never accept the idea of having a woman in the command of an important place. If it's not a law, we will still be put aside in Iraqi history. But we are part of it and according to the last census in the country we are the majority," Sonkul Chapuk, president of the women's NGOs association and member of the interim national assembly, told IRIN.
"I reached this position with a lot of difficulties and have proved that there are no differences between women and men when it comes to knowledge and competency. We deserve to be recognised in this country as human beings like any other and someone has to help us on this issue," Dr Bushra Ahmed, deputy director of the dentistry college at Baghdad University, told IRIN.
In contrast, the semi-autonomy of Kurds in Iraq's three northern governorates allowed women to take great political strides during the 1990s. In 2003, two of the 26 cabinet members in the Kurdistan regional government were women and they also occupied numerous posts among ministry staff.
"In many countries in the world even a housewife has the right to receive some sort of payment for her duty at home, we are human beings and we deserve to have our rights truly recognised. Nothing has changed for better, just for the worst. It is enough now, the women of this country have to fight for their rights, no matter what the consequences are," Sua'ad Jaleel, 34, housewife, told IRIN.
Themes: (IRIN) Gender Issues, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights
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