Iraq: A conflict waged on women’s bodies

UNHCR - Iraq June 2014

Members of an Iraqi family fleeing from Mosul seek shelter in primary school in the village of Alqosh. Photo credit: UNHCR / S. Baldwin, June 2014.

In recent weeks, the situation in Iraq has rapidly deteriorated, with extremist militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now controlling much of the north and western regions of Iraq.  As the conflict escalates, it becomes evident that women are not only on the front lines, but are the battleground on which the ISIS forces are waging war. The untold story, however, is that women are not just the victims, but also the first responders to violence.

As men are called to arms to defend the fragile state, women are left to protect their families, homes and communities against the insurgencies. As is common to most conflict zones, women are subsequently saddled with the responsibility for the young, elderly, wounded and sick. Over the past 4 weeks as the conflict has worsened, over 300 000 refugees, including women and children, have fled their homes out of fear of the ISIS insurgency and a looming threat of airstrikes. In the midst of the chaos, women are increasingly vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence (SGBV),  in a country where many have struggled, over the years, to hold perpetrators accountable.

Immediately after seizing Iraq’s second-largest city in northern Iraq, ISIS troops began imposing their fundamentalist agenda on the people of Mosul, ordering women to cover themselves and retreat to their homes. Shortly after their arrival, reports of kidnapping and rape began to surface, a frightening indication of the faction’s strategy of imposing their extremist agenda on women’s bodies.

According to a statement from the UNFPA, over 20 000 women and girls in Iraq are currently facing an increased risk of sexual violence. These estimates however appear modest when considering the severity of the violence that has already been inflicted on women and girls in ISIS-occupied regions and stigma attached to sexual violence which makes it less likely to be reported.. Heavily armed fighters stormed the homes of Mosul, declaring a “sex jihad” in which women who were “not owned” could be abducted and raped by ISIS troops.  In the early weeks of June, human rights defenders reported 13 of these cases, 4 of which have led the victims to suicide as a result of the trauma and shame.

Maha, an aid worker in Bagdhad commented on the corrosive effects that sectarian conflicts have had on women in Iraq, saying, “Women are sacrificing their lives to hold families together. They’ve regressed more than 50 years in the past decade. The tragedy is that women over the age of 50, they were the pioneers of the women and feminist movement in Iraq. They fought for women’s rights and now it’s their daughters, nieces, sisters and friends who are being pushed back into their homes, silenced and hidden away.”

In early February 2014, the Iraqi government officially became the first country in the Middle East to launch its National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325on women, peace and security, however the current situation in Iraq is evidence that such policies do not necessarily compel immediate, concrete political action and that extremist agendas will go to great lengths to ensure that women remain on the margins of society, using violence and sexual exploitation as tactics. While the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report crimes against humanity taking place in Iraq, Iraqi media sources have been silenced, leaving many organizations and media outlets unable to convey the scope of the atrocities, thus effectively shutting down another conduit for the voices of SGBV victims to be heard.

Most appalling of all is that these human rights violations come in the wake of the largest gathering on the topic of sexual violence in conflict, where world leaders, experts, activists and survivors convened in the UK, pledging to make every effort to “shatter the culture of impunity, help survivors and deter perpetrators” of SGBV. On the day that ISIS troops conquered Mosul, threatening women and imposing Sharia law on the region, world leaders were gathered in boardrooms, discussing the urgent need for governments to respond to sexual violence.

But it is not world leaders who are risking their lives to support women who are targets of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. It is civil society organizations, women’s activists and human rights defenders who shoulder the risk of being caught in the crossfire while mobilizing emergency response strategies to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence.

Among them is the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), an organization seeking to advance the status of women and promote a secular society in Iraq. Since the onset of the conflict, OWFI has been planning and implementing crisis response strategies for women and children while demanding that the international community adopt a human rights-based approach to conflict resolution in the region. Together with partner organizations like MADRE and the Global Fund for Women, OWFI is:

  • Opening a women’s shelter in the ISIS-controlled territory, providing refuge, emergency care and counseling to women who have survived rape and are fleeing rape and sex trafficking.
  • Distributing humanitarian aid, including clothes and food packages to displaced women and families in ISIS-controlled territories
  • Offering support and protection to progressive human rights activists through a network of allies

While world leaders are sequestered in plenary room, surrounded by layers of security as they echo the catchline that it’s “time to act to end sexual violence in conflict”, women, activists and civil society organizations continue to stand on the front lines in Iraq, and around the world, having long since realized the urgency of the situation.


This post was written by Tori Roberts, WPSN-C Intern and student in the School of Social Work at Carleton University.

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