Iraq, 23 November 2023 – In recent years, violence against women and girls has surged – an estimated one in three women globally will experience physical and sexual violence in their lifetime. And as horrifying as this statistic is, unfortunately, it does not include other forms of violence that often go unreported: verbal, psychological and economic violence.
In Iraq, nearly 1 million women and girls are at risk of some form of gender-based violence (GBV). Around 26 per cent of Iraqi women report having already experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner – and Iraqi experts say many cases go unreported.
“We face a big issue of unreported domestic violence,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mina Raad, an Officer with the Women's Division of Baghdad’s Community Police. “Of the women who report, most of them ask for help from the female officers rather than the male officers.”
Women and girls are not just victims; they play a pivotal role in preventing and responding to violence. Community policing (CP) in Iraq, for instance, encourages partnership between the public and the police to manage safety and security based on community needs. CP Officers are unarmed, come from the communities they serve, and conduct extensive outreach to make themselves highly visible and approachable.
“It is absolutely necessary for women to hold positions as CP officers,” says Sara Kadhum, who works in the Strategy Centre of Baghdad’s CP Department. “Our participation empowers women to speak more freely: an abused woman is more comfortable reporting the problem to another woman, compared to if she was sharing this information with a man,” shares Kadhum. CP is dedicated to rebuilding trust between the public and law enforcement institutions, which is only possible with the inclusion and support of women.
In conservative societies like Iraq, the presence of women in public spaces with unfamiliar men is often frowned upon. Suad heads IOM’s legal team in Ninewa’s Tel Afar district, where she provides free legal consultations, representation, awareness-raising, and more in displacement-affected communities. According to her, Iraqi society does not welcome the idea of a woman meeting and sharing her problems with a man. This further underlines the importance of women's involvement in community policing.
The absence of legal documentation exacerbates the vulnerability of women. Without proper documentation, women risk economic control by partners or family members. Ayat, a lawyer with IOM’s legal team, points out, “Without marriage certificates, women can’t obtain legal documentation for their undocumented children, who then cannot attend school.”
Without legal documentation, women's financial assets can be managed or seized by partners or family members, subjecting them to economic control by others. They can be denied their property and access to livelihood opportunities, leaving them without their own homes and land and making them more vulnerable to exploitation as they try to support themselves and their families. This violence affects not only the women themselves but also their families, especially their children.
“The women we support are so relieved when they can share their stories with a woman lawyer,” adds Ayat. “Certain cases are so sensitive that women cannot share or discuss precise details with a man comfortably or explicitly.”
Being able to communicate freely, without hesitation or judgment, is imperative to making a strong legal case and seeking justice. Not only are many women put at greater ease by working with a female lawyer, but they are no longer alone; they are empowered by the solidarity and encouraged by the example, ultimately making them more courageous in asserting their rights.
“I was the first woman lawyer in Zummar and Rabia. There were no women lawyers before,” shares Suad. “After me, five more women lawyers joined the court.”
Women’s leadership is growing in Iraqi civil society, too, especially when it comes to protecting women and girls from violence.
“Women have the drive to realize change,” says Kawthar Al Mahamdi, President of the Soqya Foundation for Relief and Development, based in Anbar’s Fallujah district and supported by IOM through the WASL Civil Society Fund.
“However, because of the marginalization we face – especially women affected by armed groups – we often bear the burden of others' mistakes, turning us into tools for fueling conflicts,” she adds. The Foundation supports women’s economic empowerment through skills and capacity-building training for entry into local industries, as well as social and psychological support.
Dalia Al Mimari, of the IOM WASL-supported Human Line Foundation, a woman-led and women-focused civil society organization based in Mosul, emphasized that every woman has a right to live without fear of violence.
Her foundation provides legal, psychological, and economic support services to women victims of war, and they also work to enable them to participate effectively in the political, economic, social, and cultural fields.
As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, let's not only condemn violence against women but also celebrate and support the women tirelessly working to prevent and respond to all forms of violence. Their leadership is not just beneficial – it is essential. Under their guidance, we can aspire to a world where all women and girls live free from violence. It is women who will pave the way forward.