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Gender based violence: an urgent threat to Iraq’s refugee women

It is estimated that one in three women will experience some form of gender based violence (GBV) in their lifetime. Violence against women is even more common among conflict-affected populations, for whom the patriarchal and chaotic nature of conflict forms a permissive space for, and sometimes actively encourages GBV; where acts of GBV are considered as part of the spoils of war, or indeed a strategic method of oppression. This has been highlighted recently in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State (IS) has demonstrated the use of rape, torture and trafficking of women as inherent features of their strategy.

However the perpetration of gender based violence against women in Iraq isn’t specific to IS soldiers. Collectively, Arab states are considered to have the second highest prevalence of GBV in the world. It should not come as a surprise then, that with the social breakdown that occurs among conflict affected populations – particularly those originating from within misogynistic societies – GBV becomes a significant public health issue among internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees.

A damning report published by UNIRAQ on Syrian refugees in Iraq found that women do not feel safe within the refugee camps. The report demonstrated that married women experience more frequent intimate partner violence, particularly from unemployed husbands. This finding was reiterated by a systematic review, which found that rates of intimate partner violence tend to be higher than wartime rape, or violence committed by individuals outside of the home. It has been suggested that this may to partially explained by the frustration felt by conflict affected societies; the loss of homes, loved ones and livelihoods put immense strain on families and often women feel the brunt of such frustrations. The lack of safe and affordable housing, and limited opportunities for employment are considered to exacerbate the risk of GBV, pushing individuals into risky behaviours such as sex work. What’s more, crowded living conditions and the relative chaos within camp environments form a space where attacks outside of the home become more likely.

Gender based violence can result in a multitude of health implications, from physical injury, to deep psychosocial unrest and complications of sexual violence, including sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The social environment also exacerbates the effect of GBV on survivors; the shame associated with being sexually abused or raped often results in social ostracisation, and in extreme cases so-called ‘honour’ killings. This means that women exposed to sexual violence are less likely to report abuse, and therefore suffer the effects in silence. This phenomen has been suggested as a reason for the lack of exact data about the prevalence of GBV among IDP and refugee populations in Iraq.

It has been suggested however that even if more women did seek help for GBV related issues, available services are still wholly inadequate. Health services are overcrowded, and there are no clear guidelines or infrastructural plans in place to deal with sensitive gender based or sexual violence survivors. In some cases camps have been criticised for not providing socially acceptable services; for example a number of camps do not even provide a female reproductive health doctor. Such issues further limit access and discourage women from seeking professional help. The situation has been worsened still by the recent financial crisis facing Iraq, particularly the Kurdistan region, where governmental services made available to IDP and refugee populations have been severely affected. What’s more, health staff both within camps and more general health services of Iraq are not adequately trained in the clinical management of rape and sexual abuse. Therefore it is questionable to what extent GBV survivors can realistically be helped.

It is clear that already vulnerable IDP and refugee women face a multitude of issues related to gender based violence; not just facing the daily threat of attack, but also the shame associated with being a survivor, and the infrastructural obstacles that prevent their access to help. International agencies and the Iraqi governments need to focus their attention on social change, both in discouraging acts of GBV, and in limiting the associated stigma. However, more immediately, infrastructural systems must be put in place to deal with the urgent health implications GBV survivors face, with adequate referral systems.

Featured image © IHH


Goshan KaradaghiGoshan Karadaghi is from the Kurdistan region of Iraq and holds an MSc in Global Health and Development from UCL. With an interest in medical anthropology and the culture of medicine within Kurdish societies, Goshan’s research focuses on the experiences of health seekers and the efficacy of health policy. She is an assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaimani, Iraq, and is director of the Sulaimani office for a UNFPA partner organisation.

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