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One Year Later: Women's Human Rights in "Liberated" Iraq

Posted on: Thursday, April 1, 2004

Keywords: Iraq, Middle East

One Year Later: Women’s Human Rights in “Liberated” Iraq

By Yifat Susskind, Associate Director
Spring 2004

“We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and
 we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.”
George Bush, March 17, 2003, televised address.

A year after Bush’s lofty promise, how are Iraqi women and families faring under US occupation? Newspaper headlines attest to the ongoing lack of state security in Iraq. Less examined is the status of human security, the right of Iraqi women and families to have their basic needs met and their human rights respected, protected and fulfilled. This article explores six aspects of human security in Iraq—personal security; water and food security; the rights to health care and political participation; and economic security. After a year of “liberation” at the hands of the US military, most Iraqi women find that they are worse off on every count.

Since the “end of hostilities” in May, ongoing military violence and a spike in violence against women in Iraq has curtailed all aspects of women’s lives, preventing many from leaving home, even for food, water or medical treatment or to go to work or school. Conditions of daily life are deteriorating, rather than improving, with most of Iraq still experiencing power outages for an average of 16 hours a day.  Children sleep in the streets between rising piles of uncollected garbage. Drinking water is contaminated and there are 12-hour waits to buy gasoline or cooking fuel. In most of the country, there is no telephone or postal service. As those primarily responsible for meeting the basic needs of the population, Iraqi women have been forced to intensify their work hauling water, preparing food and caring for children traumatized by bombing, disease and malnutrition.

Because of gender discrimination, the needs of women themselves have been the first to be sacrificed during these difficult times. Women have been excluded from political decision-making, jeopardizing their rights for the future. And women must struggle for rights within their families and communities as well as against arbitrary rule by the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and whatever new government the CPA installs. Iraqi women are doing just that —demanding rights and resources— and MADRE is supporting their call. Like MADRE’s partners everywhere, Iraqi women affirm that state security can only be achieved by guaranteeing human security and that any governing authority has the obligation to fulfill women’s demands for human rights and human security.


• Iraqi women cite a breakdown in security and public order as the number one problem in Iraq since the invasion. A sharp rise in abduction, rape and sexual slavery has made women afraid to leave their homes. Girls are being kept out of school and many women are now forbidden by their families to be in public without a male escort.

• Women attribute the rise in violence to social disintegration triggered by the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; and ongoing fighting between US and Iraqi forces.
• It is estimated that more than 400 Iraqi women were abducted and raped within the first four months of US occupation.  The rapes have triggered an increase in “honor killings,” in which male relatives murder rape survivors because the attack has “shamed” the family.

• In many areas, Islamic militants now patrol the streets, beating and harassing women who are not “properly” dressed or behaved.  According to a woman musician, “If the Islamists see me walking on the street with my flute, they could kill me.”  In Basra, heavily armed religious extremists repeatedly storm into university classrooms and threaten to kill women without head coverings. Iraqi women’s organizations have accused Islamic groups of “taking revenge on each other by raping women.”

• Guerilla attacks against Iraqis thought to be cooperating with the occupation authorities are on the rise. Attacks are aimed not only at high-ranking officials, but also at ordinary Iraqis with little choice but to accept jobs with the CPA. For example, in January 2004, four women who worked as cleaners and laundry staff for US forces were gunned down on their way to work.  A month later, a least 75 men were killed while waiting to apply for jobs with the new Iraqi police and army.


• US-led forces have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis since the onset of the invasion – the highest civilian casualty rate of any war waged by the West since Vietnam.  Iraqi women and families continue to be killed by US soldiers, who are using increasingly aggressive tactics against guerilla fighters with little regard for the danger posed to civilians.

• The CPA has failed to meet its legal obligations under the Hague and Geneva Conventions to provide security to Iraqi civilians. 

• Iraqi women’s organizations have appealed directly to CPA Chief Paul Bremer, demanding that the CPA train and dispatch security guards to help prevent violence against women and that the CPA prosecute crimes against women. These demands were ignored.

• The chaos and danger facing Iraqi women and families benefits the CPA by creating a dependency on the occupation authorities and keeping Iraqis preoccupied with issues of survival rather than politics. As Yanar Mohammed, a leader in the Iraqi women’s movement commented,  “We want to be able to talk about other issues, like separation of mosque and state and the development of a civil law based on equality between men and women, but when women can’t even leave their homes to discuss such things, our work is quite hard.”


• Iraqis have identified the lack of potable water as the second most severe outcome of the US invasion, right after the lack of security. 

• Contaminated drinking water is the number one cause of disease in children in Iraq.  Whole communities are suffering from outbreaks of cholera, intestinal infections and kidney stones due to contaminated water.

• Baghdad’s water supply was disrupted for much of March 2003. By early 2004, only two-thirds of city residents had adequate water supplies, according to the CPA. 

• In the countryside, the lack of irrigation water is causing crop failures. Many women now spend hours a day hauling drinking water from streams flowing with raw sewage; and even these contaminated sources will dry up as summer approaches.


• US taxpayers have shelled out $3 billion for the Bechtel Corporation to repair Iraq’s water, electricity and other infrastructure. But most of Bechtel’s work meets the needs of the US military and other corporations, not Iraqi women and families.  For example, Baghdad’s three sewage treatment plants, which were destroyed and looted during the war, will probably not be repaired for another year.

• Like Iraq’s widespread fuel shortages, the failure of water treatment plants is largely due to the CPA’s failure to restore electricity supplies (needed to power both oil refineries and water treatment plants).

• Some utilities remain in disrepair because the needed replacement parts are only manufactured by French or German companies that have been banned from receiving reconstruction contracts in retribution for their governments’ opposition to the invasion.

• The longer the power infrastructure stands in disrepair, the more likely it is that it will need to be rebuilt altogether. Some have speculated that Bechtel is simply opting not to buy replacement parts so that it can bid on building all-new power generators at a much higher cost than repairing the old system.


• Thirteen years of US-led bombings and sanctions have left more than half of all Iraqis (13 million people) dependent on food rations. A quarter of all children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition;  and 44 percent of Iraqis cannot meet their minimum food needs.

• During the invasion, US troops destroyed critical food and water infrastructure (such as roads and bridges needed to transport food) and water treatment plants. Troops also destroyed orchards of oranges, lemons and date palms.  Today, Iraqi farmers (many of them women) report that they cannot grow food because of unexploded US cluster bombs in their fields. 

• Since the invasion, acute malnutrition has doubled from 4 percent to 8 percent.  Mothers and children, particularly in central and southern Iraq, are the most vulnerable to chronic malnutrition.  Rising prices and increased poverty under the US occupation have contributed to the crisis of food insecurity.

• Women’s ability to provide nutritious meals and safe drinking water for themselves and their families is impeded by ongoing cuts to water and electricity supplies  and by a 100 percent rise in the cost of cooking fuel since the invasion. 


• In November 2003, the US took control of Iraqi oil revenues (worth up to $20 billion a year)  and announced the end of the UN Oil-for-Food Program, which had used Iraqi oil revenues to buy and distribute food aid for the population since 1995.

• According to the US State Department’s website, “provisions have been made to ensure the Iraqi people continue to receive humanitarian support after the program’s termination” – but only until mid-2004. “The longer-term goal,” says the State Department, “is for Iraq to move to a market-based system for food provision. Companies interested in supplying food to the Iraqi market should contact the CPA and the Iraqi Ministry of Trade at this website.”

• The US is selling Iraq’s state-owned food processing plants to corporations with minimal regulations for quality control or concern about national food security.

• The US is also overhauling Iraq’s agriculture sector to produce luxury crops for export instead of food for Iraq’s population – a policy that has jeopardized food security in many poor countries.


• Since 1991, US-led sanctions, coupled with Ba’ath Party corruption, virtually destroyed Iraq’s once-state-of-the-art public health system and degraded the health of millions of Iraqis. Today, Iraqi women are facing a worsening public health crisis resulting from ongoing violence and the destruction of health services during the US invasion.

• Since the invasion, health workers in Iraq report a rise in disability, infectious diseases, maternal and infant mortality, low birth weights, water-borne diseases, diseases of malnutrition and vaccine-preventable diseases, as well as post-traumatic stress disorders, psychiatric illness, behavioral disturbance and developmental disturbances in children and miscarriages and birth defects from environmental contamination.  

• Increased poverty and the general dissolution of social norms that accompanies war have contributed to a rise in prostitution, sexually transmitted infections, dangerous backstreet abortions and sexual violence, all of which threaten Iraqi women’s health.

• Pregnancy-related complications have increased, especially among adolescent girls, who are being compelled to marry at younger ages because of increased poverty.


• In 2003, US forces bombed numerous Iraqi hospitals and clinics. Looting, which US forces were legally obligated to prevent, depleted Iraq’s primary supplies of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment  and damaged or destroyed one-third of all clinics offering family-planning services.  

• Iraqi doctors report that conditions in public hospitals are much worse than before the invasion.   After almost 10 months of “reconstruction,” one major Baghdad hospital still had raw sewage streaming across the floors; the drinking water was contaminated and 80 percent of patients contracted infections while at the hospital.

• Because of the CPA’s neglect of the health sector, half of the clinics in Baghdad have been taken over by religious or political factions, causing concern about the denial of health services on a sectarian basis and further violations of women’s right to reproductive health services.

• The US has sidelined experienced public health advocates and humanitarian agencies in favor of maintaining military control of Iraq’s health sector. Now the US is overhauling Iraq’s health system according to the disastrous US model, under which health care is viewed as a commodity rather than a human right.


“We don’t do women.”
- high-ranking CPA official responding to a reporter’s concern about threats to Iraqi women’s rights.

• Despite the CPA’s talk about reflecting the diversity of Iraqi society in the governing structures it has installed, almost no effort has been made to guarantee that women – who make up about 60 percent of the population – are fairly represented in government.

• The CPA appointed only three women to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). No women were appointed to the committee assembled by the US Justice Department to create a new court system in Iraq.  Only one woman was named to the 25-member interim Cabinet.

• Many Iraqi women are reluctant to assume leadership roles for fear of being attacked by extremists. For example, when IGC member Akila al-Hashimi was assassinated in September 2003, her murder was widely viewed as a warning to women wanting to participate in government. Since then, numerous women professionals and women’s rights advocates – along with progressive and secular men – have been assassinated or received death threats demanding their resignation.

• Many Iraqi women do not wish to participate in US-installed political bodies, which they see as extensions of an illegitimate occupation. But Iraqi women across a wide political spectrum agree that the US has no genuine commitment to women’s rights.


• The CPA has refused to honor a series of demands by Iraqi women’s organizations, including calls to: create a women’s ministry; appoint women to the drafting committee of Iraq’s new constitution and guarantee that 40 percent of all CPA appointees are women; pass laws codifying women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence and meet the US obligation to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1325, mandating that women be included at all levels of decision-making in situations of peacemaking and post-war reconstruction.

• In violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the CPA has made scant effort to thwart the growing attack on women’s participation in politics and public life. For example, when Nidal Jreo, one of 15 women judges out of several thousand appointed by the CPA, was being sworn in, male lawyers shut down the ceremony, protesting the appointment of women judges. The CPA’s response was to suspend her appointment. 

• In fact, US occupation authorities helped spawn the current climate of hostility towards women’s rights.  In July 2003, Paul Bremer appointed several reactionary Muslim clerics to the IGC, empowering leaders with a stated commitment to restricting women’s human rights

• In effect, the CPA has chosen to trade women’s rights for political support from religious conservatives, a tactic used by governments around the world, including Algeria under Bouteflika, Israel under Ben-Gurion and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.


• Under the secular Ba’ath regime, women retained many of the rights that they had won before the 1963 CIA-backed coup that brought the Ba’ath Party to power. Women chose their own husbands and professions, earned equal pay, inherited and owned property, and voted and held public office. (In the 1980s, women held 20 percent of the seats in Iraq’s Parliament, compared to 14 percent in the US Congress). 

• In 1990, Saddam Hussein, seeking to appease a growing Islamist movement, rescinded most women’s rights. Iraq began allowing men to commit “honor killings” of women relatives accused of compromising their family’s reputation.   In 2000, the government allowed Islamic militants to publicly behead over 200 women political activists and prostitutes.

• Economic hardship generated by US-led economic sanctions also severely eroded
women’s rights. As the economy failed, women were the first to be fired from their jobs. Prostitution increased. Girls were pulled out of school to help mothers cope with the increased burdens of finding food, clean water and income.


• Before the US occupation, Iraqi women represented 40 percent of the public-sector work force. Today, most women are unemployed. The CPA spurred a 70 percent unemployment rate by laying off hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.  Women’s unemployment rate is even higher. Iraqis who still have jobs receive “emergency pay” from the CPA; about half of their pre-invasion wages.

• Despite the promise of a reconstruction job boom, the US has failed to create jobs for Iraqis. Instead, the CPA has hired foreign contractors for high-skill jobs (although qualified Iraqi women and men are available) and flown in thousands of foreign workers to fill low-skill jobs (though Iraqis are increasingly desperate for work). 

• At a time when more than half of all Iraqis are living below the poverty line,  the CPA has dismantled Iraq’s social safety net, ending employee benefits, including a system of bonuses, profit-sharing and food subsidies that workers in most sectors relied on under the previous regime. 



• What the US failed to win through negotiations at last year’s World Trade Organization and Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings, it is achieving through bombing and occupation in Iraq. Even before the invasion, the Bush Administration had a plan to transform Iraq from a state-controlled economy to a corporate-controlled “free market” more extreme than any the world has known. 

• Now, under the authority of CPA Chief Paul Bremer, policies widely acknowledged to increase poverty and inequality and undermine public health, workers’ rights, education and the potential for democracy are being implemented in Iraq. These include the discredited Structural Adjustment Programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; vast privatization of public services; and an emphasis on international trade heavily skewed to benefit US-based corporations.

• In September 2003, Bremer signed four orders laying the groundwork for the new Iraqi economy. The Bremer Orders create the conditions for Iraq’s new role in the global economy by denying any future Iraqi government essential tools of economic development and turning Iraqis into a nation of low-wage, semi-employed workers. The Bremer Orders dictate:

o 100% Privatization: The Orders effectively put Iraq up for sale. Corporations can now buy everything from Iraq’s factories, farms, telecommunications, media outlets, banks, transportation and infrastructure, to schools, prisons, hospitals and utilities.

o Trade Liberalization:  In June 2003, Bremer issued a six-month suspension of all tariffs and trade restrictions.    The immediate effect was to ruin Iraq’s poultry and textile industries by forcing local producers to compete with large US corporations that easily undercut their prices, thanks to the massive US government subsidies enjoyed by these industries. Trade liberalization in Iraq is a pilot for the region-wide Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) announced by Bush in May 2003.  

o WTO Entry: The US is preparing Iraq for a speedy entry into the World Trade Organization by simply scrapping Iraqi laws that contradict WTO rules. In contrast, the CPA is enforcing Saddam Hussein’s 1987 ban on labor organizing, which will benefit corporations buying up Iraqi assets: without basic labor rights such as collective bargaining and contracts, Iraqi workers have little legal recourse to resist the massive layoffs that are expected with privatization.

o National Treatment: Iraq’s new government will not be allowed to favor Iraqi industries or investors over multi-national corporations; for example, by insisting that foreign corporations hire Iraqi workers. The provision also contains a legal loophole allowing corporations to ignore national regulations protecting workers, consumers and the environment.

o Unrestricted Repatriation of Profits: Foreign investors can pocket 100 percent of their profits, with no obligation to reinvest anything in Iraq. Investors can pull their money out of the country at any time with no warning. This rule triggered the economic crises in East Asia in the 1990s and Argentina in 2000.

o Flat Tax: The US has lowered Iraq’s highest tax rate from 45 percent to 15 percent.  Both corporations and individuals will pay the low 15 percent rate, regardless of whether they earn a dollar a day or millions annually. The flat tax vastly reduces taxes paid by the rich, especially corporations, and badly squeezes the middle class. It thereby undermines prospects for Iraq’s economic future by further burdening the country’s beleaguered middle class.

Iraqi women will bear the brunt of the extreme privatization being imposed by the US. Like women everywhere, Iraqi women are the majority of the poor who stand to lose access to critical social services in a “free-market Iraq.” And as society’s primary caretakers, Iraqi women will be forced to absorb the burden created by the elimination of public health care, education, housing, food subsidies, water services and other programs designed to meet the basic needs of the population.

• International law and the US Army’s own Law of Land Warfare make it illegal for the CPA to impose these fundamental changes on Iraq’s economy.

Help stop the looting of Iraq by US corporations. To support the Campaign to Stop the War Profiteers, visit



When Bechtel privatized the water services in Cochabamba, Bolivia, prices rose 200 percent. Impoverished families were forced to spend a third of their income on water. The price hike sparked mass protests in which a 17-year-old boy was killed and many others injured by army troops sent in to protect Bechtel’s investment. The Bolivian government eventually cancelled the contract and Bechtel is now suing Bolivia for $25 million in lost profits.   

Despite the many threats to women in occupied Iraq, women are organizing to fight for their rights and meet basic needs for themselves and their families. New women’s organizations have been launched and conferences held; women have founded domestic violence shelters, literacy and immunization programs and orphanages. And women have held demonstrations and organized petitions and lobbying efforts to demand inclusion in a new Iraqi political system.

MADRE is working in support of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq to help guarantee that Iraqi women have access to the resources they need and the rights they deserve.

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