Syrian and Iraqi women refugees who escaped the violence brought by the Islamic State now face another threat in refugee camps. These women may not live in fear of ISIS anymore, but new research shows many are in grave danger from sexual predators.
According to the latest United Nations figures, the Kurdistan region now has over 1.7 million refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, with 43 percent of those being women aged 4 to 60. These refugees are mainly resettled in 13 refugee camps and transit sites.
A yet-to-be published report has found a shocking number of rapes, sexual assaults and other violence against women in these camps.
The new research, conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council, UN Women, UNHCR, the Warvin Foundation and Salahaddin University in Erbil. Rudaw spoke with the university lecturer and human rights activist Bayan Azizi, who was the research top adviser. Azizi teaches law, politics and human rights at Salahaddin University in Erbil. She is also the head of the women’s program at the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights in Kurdistan.
Rudaw: Describe the refugee condition in general and that of female refugees in particular in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Bayan Azizi: Syrian refugees who due to the regional war and insecurity have moved to Iraq are facing numerous challenges that our research has just revealed some of them. All those problems that have ever existed for any refugee throughout history have now accumulated in the Iraqi Kurdistan, and have emerged as a critical situation for all refugees.
Female refugees in particularly face numerous problems, such as domestic and social violence. Poverty and unemployment, lack of housing or even a proper shelter for them all together have deepened the crisis. There is no proper accommodation available to the families in the area. On top of that, mental problems of the youth, rape and sexual abuse in return for money, formation of human trafficking gangs that transfer girls over 16 to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and low security for refugees are among the problems that these refugees have to deal with.
Despite the aid provided by the Kurdistan Regional Government and occasional contributions by generous people and civil centers and national and local organizations, due to the large population of the refugees and lack of preparation for accepting refugees, many problems have arisen. These include hygiene problems such as shortages of medical facilities, food and restrooms. In Domiz camp, for example, there is one restroom in the poorest hygiene condition for more than 50 people.
What are the particular challenges for female refugees in the Kurdistan region of Iraq?
Lack of security for women and girls both at home and in society is conspicuous. Women’s main problems include sexual aggression, rape, sexual violence and sexual abuse by husbands, male family members, other men, colleagues, neighbors, police, government employees and NGO staff. Also, verbal abuse by husbands, male family members and other men in society.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s men lack of respect for Syrian women has been mentioned as one of the main reasons for insecurity in the refugee community. Men in the host community refer to Syrian women as beggars, prostitutes, etc.
Our research found that illiteracy or low levels of literacy and education and prohibition of girls from going to school, psychological problems and the feeling of internal weakness, early marriage, forced marriage and circumcision, lack of security—whether at home or outside, lack of familiarity with health services, disinheritance and unawareness about their rights are the most prevalent issues among refugee women in the Kurdistan region.
Human rights activists and aid workers claimed a soaring rate of sexual assaults and violence among the refugees. To what extent are the claims true?
The statistical results and our field studies and observations strongly support the claim. Since the entrance of Syrian refugee women into Iraq, only 18 percent of them have not been subjected to verbal aggression and disrespect. In the meantime, 82 percent of refugee women have been subjected to a degree of aggression or abuse, while considering the culture, language and religion (Kurdish and Islam) shared between refugee women and the host community, this percentage was expected to be much lower, but in fact it is high.
Refugees have been identified as a high-risk community. Among them, women and children are the most vulnerable. In addition to all of these problems the refugee community in general is exposed to, women face aggression and violence from both sides. First from their family and men in their family, and second, from the host community; a community which due to its numerous internal problems is dealing with special political and cultural issues. Yet in spite of all these issues, Iraqi Kurdistan’s men lack of respect for Syrian women has been mentioned as one of the main reasons for insecurity in the refugee community. Men in the host community refer to Syrian women as beggars, prostitutes, etc. They are enduring high level of verbal and physical violence every day.
Why this is happening?
One main reason that increases violence against women in society is the lack of specific punishment for aggressors, and the fact that the refugee community is not accepted by the host community mounts to further suffering.
Government employees, international and national NGO staffs in those camps are supposed to help refugees and victims of violence, but our report found that instead of solving problem and relieving the psychological pressure on women 35 percent of government employees and 24 percent of international and national NGO staffs added more problems on top of other difficulties for female refugees.
Statistically, on average 63 percent of women and girls have been subjected to verbal abuse at least once, which is a high and alarming rate for a rather small statistical population.
Among the refugees, 86 percent of the population has witnessed an honor killing at least once.
We found that since the entrance of refugees into Iraqi Kurdistan, violence has dramatically increased and only a small percentage of women have not experienced verbal violence or other forms of violence, which due to limitations for speaking out about such issues, even this small percentage could be ignored.
Psychological factors, poverty, shortage of welfare facilities and consultation centers, lack of laws to punish assailants have led to the poor security condition of women which lays the foundation to many other social problems in future.
Where women and girls are most exposed to danger? Who are the assailants?
The locations of assaults vary, but we found that women at home, on the street and public places, public offices, at NGOs, at workplaces, at schools and in taxis are exposed to danger and sexual harassment. According to the obtained results, the highest percentages are respectively that of taxis with 34.9 percent, streets and public places with 32.4 percent, workplace with 16.5 percent, homes with 6.9 percent, other places with 4.2 percent, schools with 2.3 percent, public offices with 1.7 percent, NGOs with 0.6 percent and 0.5 percent did not answer the question.
Given the culture of victim-blaming and a stigma that in general dominates rape and sexual assault, how have the refugee community and families reacted to the issue?
Sexual issues are interwoven with family honor, if issues disclosed by a woman to her family; she will face intense and lethal punishment. For example, in honor killings—which are committed to preserve family honor—women are primarily considered guilty.
Among the refugees, 86 percent of the population has witnessed an honor killing at least once. Out of this, 86 percent 50 percent have observed more than three honor killings, which as a social issue is a shocking statistic.
There are two types of family reactions to sexual assaults and rape depending on the kind of sexual violence committed against the women: An assault that resulted in the loss a girl’s virginity or a rape that is committed against married women.
The loss of a girl’s virginity is equivalent to their family honor in a patriarchal society. According to our research findings, 91.7 percent of refugees who participated in the survey described the loss of virginity prior to marriage as “unacceptable.”
When we asked, ‘Do you know or have you heard of a woman or girl being killed in order to preserve the family honor?’ more than 87 percent said “Yes, we have information about that fact.’ In such a situation, disclosing the rape or sexual assault to the family equals the death or killing of the victim by her family.
According to the results, 97 percent of married women never report the rape crime to their family members. It's slang in the traditional community: “the victim is the culprit and guilty.”
This opinion is firmly embedded in the society and families, even women themselves believed it. So they are left with no other option other than silence, and remaining silent has become their only mechanism to cope with rape and sexual assaults.
Revealing the issue of rape without punishment for the aggressors results in just shame for women in the paternal community in general, and refugee camps in particular.
Our research found that most of the women, 81 percent, don't believe in the justice system for punishing the sinful men or protecting female victims.
Is there any shelter or health center that could treat the victims? In case of pregnancy and possible health issues where a victim has to be treated? Or is there any legal support available to them.
There is no shelter that could take care of and host the victims in the refugee camps. According to the obtained social and health results about women’s centers in their residence in Iraqi Kurdistan, 57.6 percent of women answered: “There is no center for pregnancy and possible health or social services.”
When we asked, “Are there legal assistance centers in your residence in Iraqi Kurdistan?” more than 64 percent of women reported there is no legal support center or they never hear about the existence of legal services. A significant number of victims who went to the women’s centers complain that staffs who provide services have behaved badly with them. It's clear that awareness of services related to sexual issues or access to the women’s services are very weak.
Are KRG authorities aware of the issue? If yes, what measures that they have taken?
There are lots of police officers or security guards in all of the camps belonging to the KRG. They are responsible for maintaining security in those camps. There are also numerous political organizations and parties. It would be so naive to think that they are not aware of the issue.
During the research process, we held many meetings, interviews, discussion and closed sessions with different officials with the KRG regarding refugee issues. Interestingly, most of them were aware of the tragic situation of refugees. We described facts about refugee life by statistics and in detail to them, but they already had enough information about everything.
There is no shelter that could take care of and host the victims in the refugee camps.
The tragic situation of women is ignored, any stories that reveal the issue are not allowed to be disseminated, or simply framed as a rudimentary and insignificant topic.
We all know that the KRG is wrestling with countless problems. The Syrian refugee issue is just one of those serious predicaments, especially since the menace of ISIS.
However, I believe that they have abandoned the issue.
What can be done to help victim women in refugee camps? What can the international community and human rights organizations do?
The rape victims in the first place are war victims. War and displacement destroy the lifestyle and personal and social situation of women in the family and society. Thus, the first step would be to find a long-term solution that puts an end to this devastating war in the region. Sexual violence in the host society is one of the consequences of this ruthless war.
The rights of refugee women were mentioned in many International Conventions and other international Protocol and other international law-related treaties. The KRG as a part of Iraq is signatory to all of these international legal documents, so it is responsible for protecting women and children in the war and displacement. In these treaties ways in which victims could be supported are articulated in full detail.
The international NGOs can use their power, facilities, budget and their legal status to cover victim women and protect them in Kurdistan or elsewhere. The refugee women in Kurdistan region need to receive much more international and local health, social, legal and family centers with professional staff.
Each form of violence apart from its short-term effects inflicts extreme mental and psychological damage on the victims. The violence victims live in a long state of trauma. Therefore, they need long term psychological rehabilitation, clinical services, greater number and more accessible health centers.
Refugee camps in Kurdistan region need more police officers with professional staffs, especially female employees and aid workers that with their presence avert the crime against female refugees. Furthermore, victims of violence need a legal centers and free lawyers to punish those who commit crime against them. A legal avenue available to them would be significant move in fighting crimes committed against refugee women.
The existing support services are absolutely not enough for them. The international community and human rights organizations are responsible for the unfolding humanitarian crisis; they should get involved more actively and effectively.