Iraq: An Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women

The Problem © Daniel Smith

In 2003, the US violated the Charter of the United Nations and invaded Iraq. Since then, more than one million Iraqis have been killed, civil war has raged, and four million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. Despite promises of "democratizing" Iraq, the US supported Islamist political forces bent on dismantling women's legal rights.

Under the US occupation, Islamist militias have waged a systematic campaign of violence against women in their bid to remake Iraq as an Islamist state. There has been a sharp rise in gender-based violence within families, including domestic battering and "honor killing." Newly adopted Shari’a laws, such as Article 41 of Iraq’s Constitution, have degraded women’s rights, making them more vulnerable to abuses.

In particular, widows in Iraq face violence and discrimination, both as women and as non-virgins who are rarely afforded the opportunity to remarry and are considered burdens to their families. This double discrimination undermines widows’ exercise of basic human rights and their capacity to contribute to the creation of a viable, democratic society. Because most fatalities in Iraq’s armed conflict are men, a disproportionate number of those now displaced are widows and their children. Today, between 740,000 and two million women bear the stigma of widowhood in Iraq. Many confront bereavement, displacement, war-related trauma and a total loss of family income. Up to one-quarter of displaced women-headed households live in squatter camps or vacated homes and lack access to basic services.

In addition to the gender inequity institutionalized by Iraq’s current government, most Iraqi media sources perpetuate gender discrimination—sometimes even condoning violence against women.


The Solution

MADRE works with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), to meet the needs of survivors of gender-based violence and empower Iraqi women to defend their rights.

A Network of Shelters

OWFI and MADRE co-founded the first network of women's shelters in the non-Kurdish part of Iraq to provide a safe haven for women fleeing violence. A human rights training program at the shelters strengthens women's capacity to extend support to other women and build the skills to demand their rights to political participation and freedom from violence of all kinds. Particular attention is paid to the needs of displaced widows and female heads of household.

MADRE's Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women offers women who are threatened with "honor killing" the means and social support to escape danger and begin to build a new life.

Just as enslaved African Americans relied on a secret network of courageous individuals to help them make their way to freedom, Iraqi women who are threatened with "honor killings" now have allies and an escape route.

Equality on the Airwaves

In the fall of 2009, OWFI launched Al Mousawat ("Equality") Radio to strengthen women's abilities to claim rights and play a positive role in rebuilding their country.

MADRE is working with OWFI to create programming that offers listeners vital practical information on their human rights and introduces new perspectives that help to transform derogatory or harmful attitudes and practices towards women.

Demanding Human Rights Based US Foreign Policy

MADRE has challenged US attacks on Iraq since the Gulf War of 1991. We continue to work in the US and internationally for an end to US aggression and respect for human rights and in Iraq and around the world.


The Results

  • Dozens of women's lives have already been saved thanks to the shelters and the Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women. 
  • Women are escaping situations of domestic abuse and forced prostitution.
  • Women have moved from seeing themselves as victims of abuse to knowing that they can create positive change.
  • Women have become a vital force in the "third way," a progressive Iraqi political formation that rejects both Islamist repression and US occupation and works for a truly democratic Iraq dedicated to the fulfillment of human rights, including the full range of women's rights.

How You Can Help