What About Women in Iraq?

by Jasmin Ramsey

This week was marked by Iraq war commentary, but the status of women in the country was noticeably absent on the 10th anniversary of the invasion. Enter the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), which released a brief on the topic — particularly relevant when considering how despite billions allocated for reconstruction, Iraq is reportedly suffering from greater poverty and corruption now than during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Although many will recall the fluttering banner of so-called women’s empowerment during the US occupation, ICAN points out that between 2003 and 2011 “much of the attention and funds dedicated to women was poorly targeted and often based on agendas imposed by outsiders.”

The brief highlights the perspectives of Iraqi women regarding losses and gains during the US intervention, evolving trends and the opportunities and difficulties that Iraqi women currently face. Following is an excerpt on the status of the most vulnerable women in Iraqi society.

Structural violence: early marriages, abandoned wives, invisible widows and unregistered children:

In addition to the war and occupation related security threats, many Iraqis, especially poorer women are still living with the consequences of the decade long sanctions regime. One of the devastating repercussions of the sanctions regime was that poorer Iraqis in central and southern areas were forced to give their daughters up for early marriage as a way of reducing the number of mouths to feed. For many the justification was that marriage would provide some security for their girls. The practice has continued, and the average age of marriage in some areas is now ten, even though the law states that girls must be at least 15 to marry.

Technically, the Iraqi civil code’s Personal Status Law offers clear protection for young girls by forbidding under-age marriage.10 Even girls and boys aged 15 through 18 must have the approval of their legal guardian and the judge before marrying. But local clerics often ignore the law. As a result an estimated six percent of marriages involve girls under the age 15 and 25 percent of marriages involve 15-18 year olds who may or may not be entering the relationship forcibly.11 Many of these girls are married under customary law, so while their relationships are seen as official at the community level and in religious settings, the union is neither registered nor recognized by civil law.

Even for women over age 18, the state will not recognize marriage if not registered by civil authorities (i.e. courts). Legally, therefore, girls and women married by clerics are considered to be single and have no protection, in the event of spousal abandonment. The Judiciary’s willingness and capacity to address these cases is limited. “They turn a blind eye because of the power of religion in Iraq,” says one peace and human rights activist, because they believe religious laws allow for early marriage.

Moreover, because men and women must show their marriage certificate to benefit from obstetric care according to the law, then the children of these marriages cannot be registered and do not receive birth certificates. These children are not recognized and thus are not eligible for state assistance including rations, health care or education.

Without the official marriage license, the mothers are deemed to be single. Their children are not recognized and thus are not eligible for state assistance including rations, health care or education.

Many women widowed during the war are not included in official figures. For example, 2008 data from the Iraqi Ministry of Planning references 900,000 widows. However, NGOs working in the most affected communities estimate the figures to be between 1 and 1.5 million. As a result, a population of women and children has emerged over the years that is not a priority for the government and is virtually ignored. There is no systematic data collection or analysis about their plight, vulnerability to risky survival methods (e.g. sex work) or recruitment into criminal and other violent entities. Organizations such as the Iraqi Al-Amal Association are reaching out to this sector, offering a mix of social counseling, legal support and health care. Yet the concern remains that this population—especially the children, boys and girls alike—are prone to exploitation, becoming both the fuel and fodder of extremist groups.

Photo: Iraqi women in ther kitchen preparing a meal for a luncheon her family is hosting for US Army personnel from Outpost Gator. Minari Village, near Iskandariyah, Babil Province, Iraq. Credit: James (Jim) Gordon.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.