Locked in by virus, Iraq hit with new pandemic: domestic abuse
"More morphine!" Malak's mother cried, her 20-year-old daughter hospitalised after a marital dispute left her severely burned – the latest victim of domestic violence exacerbated by confinement in Iraq.
The nationwide lockdown since mid-March is meant to keep coronavirus cases down in the country, but it has led to a spike in another sad statistic: domestic violence.
The head of Iraq's community police, Brigadier General Ghalib Atiyah, told journalists that its log of domestic violence cases has increased by an average of 30 percent since the curfew came into force – with some areas seeing as high as a 50-percent spike.
In a single week, the United Nations in Iraq (UNAMI) reported: "The rape of a woman with special needs, spousal abuse, immolation and self-immolation as well as self-inflicted injuries due to spousal abuse, sexual harassment of minors, and suicide due to domestic abuse among other crimes."
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Iran bearing the brunt: with a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicentre of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has cancelled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding
Strict measures in Saudi Arabia: Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque's Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shia-minority area of Qatif
Egypt restricts travel: in Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings
Israel and West Bank cut off from the world: gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self-quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure
Virtual lockdown in Kuwait: as Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing centre, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centres have been banned
In Iraq coronavirus fails to dampen protests: Iraq's protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings
In the southern province of Wasit, a 58-year-old doctor killed his wife after she refused to let him sell land that she owned, according to human rights lawyer Sajjad Hussein.
To the north in Samarra, footage surfaced of a 10-year-old girl in tears, her arms apparently broken.
"I don't want to see my dad any more, he hits me every day," says the child, identified as Saba. "He tells us it's to 'educate us'," her mother, who is divorced, is heard saying.
But Malak al-Zubeidi's case made waves.
Eight months ago, the young woman in the shrine city of Najaf married a policeman who physically abused her and barred her from seeing her family, Malak's mother told Human Rights Watch (HRW).
On 8 April, he beat Malak so badly she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire, her mother said, burning for several minutes before her father-in-law put out the flames.
Footage of her swollen, burned face and pained wails in the hospital went viral, but public support could not save her: the young woman died 10 days later.
"All Malak wanted was to be able to see her family," said Hana Edwar, a longtime women's rights advocate in Baghdad.
Her NGO, Amal (hope in Arabic), has documented a "dramatic" rise in domestic violence cases during the curfew, she told journalists.
"Everyone is spending long periods of time together inside the house. The most insignificant thing can turn into a controversy that eventually leads to violence," she said.
Extended families often live together in one household in Iraq, swathes of which still hold on to conservative religious and tribal customs. In those areas, many girls are married at a young age and subject to domestic violence.
According to the UN, 46 percent of married women in Iraq have survived some form of abuse at home, of which a third report physical and sexual assault. They have few pathways to seek help.
A recent survey by the International Organisation for Migration found that 85 percent of men in Iraq would bar female relatives from filing a police report.
And 75 percent of female respondents admitted they would not feel comfortable reporting to the police, likely fearing possible additional abuse and the cultural stigma in Iraq surrounding women entering stations alone.
The community police has work to do to erase that taboo but cannot reach out to communities through its usual town halls because of the curfew, Atiyah told journlists. There are also few shelters available for victims and legal accountability seems far-fetched.
Article 41 of Iraq's penal code gives men the right to "punish" their wives and children "within the limits of law and customs", a clause frequently used to dismiss cases brought against relatives.
Many abuse cases are "resolved" in tribal courts, which have their own legal framework that includes settlements to aggrieved families outside of official tribunals.
And "honour killings", or violence meted out extrajudicially against someone who broke a social norm, are usually met with light sentences by Iraqi courts.
After the public outcry over Malak, three of her male relatives were slapped with six-month jail sentences for "failing to assist someone in danger".
Activists have long pushed Iraq's parliament to adopt a more robust domestic violence law that would better protect victims and deter possible abusers.
"Every time, MPs bring up religion's role or pretend they're worried such cases would clog the courts," said advocate Afrah al-Qaisi. "It's a total impasse," she told journalists.
Now, the UN and HRW have seized on the wave of abuse under lockdown to point a spotlight at the issue.
Iraq's parliament should quickly revise, pass and enforce a domestic violence law in line with international standards, the New York-based HRW said.
"It should not take a global pandemic for Iraqi legislators to address the other deadly pandemic of domestic violence, but failure to do so will cost more lives," HRW's Belkis Wille said. (AFP)