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13 October 2017

Women and girls in northern Iraq: Refuge found, but still far from safety

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq continue. Even the liberation of the occupied city of Mosul does not mean the battles in the region are over. More than 3.4 million people are displaced within Iraq, having fled from war and terror. The majority of these are now in the Kurdish Autonomous Region. These are joined by a further 230,000 people who fled from the neighbouring country Syria. Many of these people have directly experienced extreme violence. The region is straining under the economic burden of hosting this high number of displaced people. Their living conditions are also becoming increasingly precarious. All these stressors are increasing the tension, and the risk of sexual harassment. Together with partner organisations medica mondiale is creating safe local spaces for women and girls and ensuring offers of psychosocial, medical and legal assistance.

The heat shimmers above the perfectly straight road, the dusty tent canvas is bleaching in the sun. Forty degrees and no tree anywhere to be seen which could provide shade. It is hardly cooler in the Rahim family tent. Three children lean forward full of curiosity, looking at the colourful pictures on the boards which Lana and Fawizya* have brought with them. The two women have been volunteering since the summer in the Shariya camp in Dohuk, informing displaced women and children about hygiene and health. Some 17,000 people live here. In light of the increasingly run-down infrastructure in the camp, it is not easy for the families to stay healthy.

No escape from harassment or fear of violence

Six volunteers have been trained to work in the camps by the partner organisation Women For Better Healthy Life. They are all displaced women and survivors of sexualised violence who previously received support from the government-run Survivor Centre. Their new duties give them confidence and a small but helpful income. Since they share the same language and culture as the camp residents, they are accepted quickly and welcomed into the tents. “As well as the hygiene tips, the volunteers are also able to pass on information about further offers of assistance for women in the area surrounding Dohuk,” explains Kerstin Lepper, who is responsible for the region at medica mondiale.

During their flight, many women experienced violence at the hands of IS militia, suffering rape, enslavement and torture. Others lost relatives or witnessed massacres. Additionally, domestic violence is also on the increase as living conditions deteriorate in the refugee and IDP camps. Young women are forced into early marriage in order to relieve their family’s financial situation. Sexualised violence is widespread yet it is still considered a taboo subject by a conservative culture which still often discriminates against women and girls. Eight out of ten displaced women report constant fear of harassment and aggression. One in three knows another woman who experienced sexualised violence.

How our projects empower women locally

In total there are four local organisations receiving support from medica mondiale for their direct assistance to women in Iraq. They all seek to encourage women to lead independent lives despite the violence and discrimination they suffered. As well as health education and psychosocial counselling, further examples of their support include sewing courses, to open up income-generating opportunities for the women, and advice about their rights with help to assert them. Another organisation is planning to establish a health clinic in Shengal which will offer a safe space for counselling and other activities. The local staff face many challenges in their work, however: “Sometimes there is only electricity for a few hours per day, and there is no money for generator fuel,” says Kerstin Lepper, who visited the region in July.

The projects are located in Dohuk in the North and individual regions in Central Iraq. For medica mondiale it is important to ensure support is not only offered to certain minorities. Instead, the partner organisations are encouraged to include all religious groups and the host communities in their programme activities, in order to enhance social cooperation and peaceful cohabitation.

At the same time, medica mondiale continues to provide training for state healthcare staff and social workers who are assisting women in the government-run safe house in Dohuk. In these training courses they learn to deal with women affected by violence in a stress and trauma-sensitive way – with a trained eye, a compassionate attitude and encouraging words.

More on the work of medica mondiale and partner organisations in Iraq