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Rape's vast toll in Iraq war remains largely ignored

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"The lack of legal status does lead to these sorts of protection issues [and] puts them in very exploitative situations," says Imran Riza, who heads the mission in Jordan of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency that assists Iraqis in Jordan. Women like Khalida, he says, "are certainly vulnerable, and much more vulnerable than others."

Rape is a common weapon of any war; no one knows how many Iraqi women have been raped since the war began in 2003. Most crimes against women "are not reported because of stigma, fear of retaliation, or lack of confidence in the police," MADRE, an international women's rights group, wrote in its 2007 report about violence against women in Iraq. Some women, like Khalida, are raped by Iraqi security forces. A 2005 report published by the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights found that women held in Interior Ministry detention centers endure "systematic rape by the investigators."

A handful of organizations are working to help rape victims in Iraq. MADRE, together with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, operates several shelters and safe houses in Baghdad for Iraqi rape victims, where the women have access to healthcare and counseling.

But militias often target women's rights advocates in Iraq, so these facilities are "a clandestine network," operated by "mostly somebody who at a great risk to themselves has opened a room for these victims," says Yifat Susskind, MADRE's communications director. The shelters have helped several thousand Iraqi women since 2003. Most rape victims learn about the shelters from other women.

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