Fear of Violence Prevents Iraqi Women from Taking Part in Rebuilding their Country
During her recent visit to Iraq, human Rights Watch researcher Johanna Bjorken, documented 25 cases of rape and sexual violence against women. In one incident that involved a nin-year-old girl, a hospital refused to treat the victim and the forensic institute in Baghdad refused to examine her because she did not have an official referral. Johanna Bjorken describes the climate of fear in the Iraqi capital.
"When I arrived in Baghdad it was very striking how few women there were on the street. And when I asked about it, people told me it was not the way it was before the war. The women were afraid. And in particular what they were afraid of was being abducted off the street and being raped. When I would ask women or if I would ask men if their wives were going to the market, their daughters going to school, the answer was: "We're very scared" and "Only if I'm with them."
Reporting rape can lead to fatal consequences
Bjorken interviewed rape and abduction victims and witnesses, Iraqi police and health professionals and US military and civil affairs officers during her five week stay in Baghdad. It is not easy for women anywhere to talk about rape and sexual assault, but Bjorken says in Iraq it could even be dangerous to do so. So did the women or their relatives actually volunteer information regarding such acts of violence?
"The consequences for women who report rape can be very severe. Social ostracism is only one consequence. Sometimes they also face violence even from their own family members. Honour-killings are part of the Iraqi tradition. So it actually surprised me how many women did turn to the police and did turn to the authorities."
Still, some women have come forward with information, but it’s the apparent official apathy that needs tackling. Often, inadequate attention to crimes against women has led to a general unwillingness by police to conduct serious investigations into such crimes. So what exactly can be done to improve the situation for women in the short term?
Participation of women in post-war Iraq ought to be a priority
"One very important thing that they should do immediately is create a special investigation unit that can investigate sex-crimes. Until the Iraqi police is able to do this on their own, this would give a high profile to the issue and let Iraqi people know that they see it as a huge issue and one that they want to tackle. Right now the efforts are being done piecemeal, cases are being lost, and that's the way it is going to continue to be."
But will the occupying forces heed these recommendations and does Human Rights Watch have access to the coalition administrator and other officials on the ground?
"Access to the coalition authorities has been difficult, but we have found that when we do manage to get in contact with them, they are very receptive to do our recommendations and they are eager for it."
Human Rights Watch certainly hopes the coalition authorities in Iraq will take note of these recommendations because without physical security women will not be able to participate in the reconstruction of their country.
"The participation of women in post-war Iraq is something that is everybody’s priority," says Bjorken. "Or something that at least should be everybody's priority."
© 2003, Ranjitha Balasubramanyam