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February 23, 2005

In Iraq, It Could Be Getting Worse for Women

by Sanjay Suri

The situation for Iraqi women has gotten worse in many respects since the U.S.-led invasion two years back, says a report from Amnesty International.

"The current lack of security has forced many women out of public life and constitutes a major obstacle to the advancement of their rights," says the report, "Iraq: Decades of Suffering - Now Women Deserve Better," published Tuesday.

The report seeks to highlight the present situation and not compare it to the Saddam days. "It is difficult to make a comparison because the situation was also very bad before," Nicole Choueiry from Amnesty told IPS.

Kidnapping and rape are reported to be a continuing problem. "This is not something that started with the invasion and then stopped," she said.

This subject is taboo in Iraq but Amnesty has received several testimonies that this remains common, Choueiry said. "Women have been kidnapped for ransom, and many have been raped while they were kidnapped." The extent of the problem is very difficult to establish, she said.

"Armed groups have had a big impact on participation of women in the public sphere and in the political domain," Choueiry said. "Many women have stopped going to universities and stopped going to work. Lack of security is the overarching problem. Many women cannot now go out even for everyday tasks like shopping."

The lack of security has been worsened by discriminatory laws in place and a lack of specific measures to protect women, she said. "There is a need to reform laws and to take measures like opening shelters for women."

The Amnesty report was based on interviews with activists and victims, and testimonies gathered by Amnesty staff from Amman in Jordan. Several activists within Iraq were commissioned to get testimonies from women, Choueiry said.

Iraqi women must have an active role in shaping the future of their country, the report says. It documents how women and girls in Iraq have been targeted directly, because they were women, and how they suffered disproportionately through decades of government repression and armed conflict.

The report points also to the discrimination against women under the Saddam days. "Three wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions have been particularly damaging to Iraqi women," it says.

"Under the government of Saddam Hussein, they were subjected to gender-specific abuses, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, or else targeted as political activists, relatives of activists, or members of certain ethnic or religious groups."

The report demonstrates how gender discrimination in Iraqi laws contributes to the persistence of violence against women. Many women remain at risk of death or injury from male relatives if they are accused of behavior held to have brought dishonor on the family.

The report says that women of non-Iraqi origin have also been held as hostages, often in an attempt to force a withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. "They have been beaten and threatened with execution, and at least one of them, Margaret Hassan, has reportedly been killed," the report says.

Amnesty International says it has repeatedly called on armed groups to end the violence against women, including harassment, death threats, violent attacks, kidnapping, and killing.

Amnesty International said it equally calls on the U.S.-led multinational forces to improve safeguards for women in detention and investigate promptly all allegations of violence against women, including sexual attacks by their forces or other agents.

Women's rights organizations in Iraq have repeatedly called for measures to be taken in order to stop violence and to end discrimination against women, Amnesty says. In recent years, numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other bodies working for women's rights have been formed, including groups that focus on the protection of women from violence.

The report says women in the next government and the elected National Assembly must take the lead in ensuring that "Iraqi legislation and future amendments are in total harmony with international standards."

(Inter Press Service)

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