North Africa, West Asia

Will the new Iraqi government face the domestic violence epidemic?

With domestic violence reaching alarming levels in Iraq during the pandemic, can the Iraqi government do the right thing?

Rejna Alaaldin
29 July 2020
Thousands of women rallied on 13 February 2020 in Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces to reject violence against women protesters
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Picture by Khalil Dawood/Xinhua News Agency/PA Image. All rights reserved

The increase in the number of domestic violence cases in Iraq presents a major challenge for the government. Without any legal protection afforded, there are limited avenues for victims to pursue.

After months of political deadlock, a new leadership was put in place in Iraq. This is a good opportunity to advance many laws, policies and reforms, with the support of the international community.

The Family Violence Protection bill, also known as the domestic violence law, has the potential to save many lives in Iraq and in light of the current pandemic, it has become extremely urgent. The partial lockdown resulted in an increase of domestic violence cases in the country. Iraq’s Community Police have reported that their domestic violence cases log saw an increase of an average of 30 percent since the lockdown, and with some areas as high as 50 percent increase of cases. Confinement has heightened the risk of women being abused, beaten and killed.

There is still a lack of a national plan and clarity of what the government will do or is doing to progress the passage of the law. The government must prioritise the draft domestic violence law and ensure that civil society organisations who are providing life-saving services to victims are also included and protected.

Women’s organisations have been the true saviours in providing essential services to domestic violence survivors. Unfortunately, the current draft of the domestic violence law lacks a provision that would engage civil society organisations. This is a missed opportunity for explicit protection and involvement of civil society. The burden of providing the essential services for domestic violence victims is too great for the government to achieve on its own. Cooperating with civil society organisations, like the Kurdistan Regional Government does, could help reduce the number of victims in need, but also help create jobs, keep children from falling behind in school and keeping up to date with vaccinations.

This cannot be stressed enough. A lack of legal infrastructure for domestic violence and a lack of legal protection and involvement of civil society organisations will only add to the violence and will continue to be a major challenge for Iraq. Adding a simple provision to the draft law that the government will engage with civil society on its implementation would follow in the footsteps of other MENA region countries, such as Lebanon, and offer a show of good faith by the Iraqi government to protesters eagerly waiting for signs of positive social change.

Confinement has heightened the risk of women being abused, beaten and killed

The recent protests proved how strong civil society can be, especially women protestors who came out demanding their rights. Civil society has changed the course of the country. The time for change and real progress has come and the new Iraqi government must meet with women protestors and meet their demands. The role these women are playing has been essential in calling for the law to be passed, especially after some egregious cases emerged in the media. This could be an easy win for the government that could build some trust with civil society

Civil society organisations have been campaigning for the proposed Family Protection Violence law on domestic violence to be passed in the Council of Representatives (Parliament) for years. The law was drafted by a Committee of Experts and presented in October 2012, nearly eight years ago. The Women, Family and Childhood Committee in Iraq’s Parliament have since been advocating for its implementation and is now taking the lead in its progress. However, Parliament has failed to pass the law due to pending controversial issues, such as various groups misinterpreting the draft law as against traditions, against Sharia, or as potentially dividing families, and requiring further dialogue and advocacy. Any objecting parties should understand that this law is there to safeguard families from violence and disintegration. The law will also make available easily accessible safe homes for victims of abuse and violence.

The incidents that drew attention in the media and contributed to building support for the draft law are not new to Iraq. The country has a long history of domestic violence cases and so-called ‘honour crimes’. Domestic violence includes intimate partner crimes, but it also includes much more. Forced marriages, child marriages and violence against women with disabilities all fall under domestic violence, and they all need to be addressed.

These crimes have been ongoing in Iraq for decades. The difference is that today there is new mobilisation from civil society to no longer tolerate these crimes. The critical role women protestors and activists have been playing in raising awareness has been instrumental, and this is why the government needs to actively engage with them.

It is important that stability and security is restored in Iraq and protecting women is a fundamental part of this stability

The pandemic has caused further confinement of women. The unfortunate obstacle of stigma attached with illness and quarantine has meant that people have been avoiding coronavirus tests to prevent being quarantined. Women have not been permitted by male family members to get tested and should they have the virus, they are not taken into isolation. This prevents treatment and is another form of abuse.

It is important that stability and security is restored in Iraq and protecting women is a fundamental part of this stability. The cycle of violence needs to be broken.

If passed with the proposed amendments, the law would propel forward the expansion of critically needed services, not only for women fleeing domestic violence but also for women and children left vulnerable by the many conflicts Iraq has seen. This is why the Prime Minister and Parliament have a great responsibility in ensuring that women’s organisations are specified within the law and that the government works in cooperation with them to provide adequate services and protection for the alarming number of victims.

When this law is improved and adopted, this will be a milestone for Iraq. The country can become an example for others to follow and can take the lead in protecting women from violence. The government can send a strong message that violence will not be tolerated and women’s organisations will be protected. Such a narrative, combined with changes in policy, will save lives and it is the changes the government makes to the law (and its enforcement) that will reflect its commitment to women’s rights and civil society.

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