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To Protect People Fleeing Mosul, Undo Iraq’s Anti-shelter Policy

The battle for Mosul has started, after months of warnings, and it’s predicted to displace over a million people. Humanitarian catastrophes like this don’t always come with advance notice, allowing policymakers and aid workers time to ramp up their operations. So it’s especially galling that Iraq’s government has tied the hands of their most valuable crisis responders: local women’s organizations.

Iraqi policy across much of the country effectively forbids these local organizations from providing shelter. Those who defy this policy, by running safe houses for women escaping violence or shelters for families displaced by war, operate under government harassment and police raids. Few people are willing to endure these risks, and so the need for shelter remains chronically unmet.

This anti-shelter policy ignores reality. It disregards that local groups are often best positioned to meet humanitarian needs in areas inaccessible to international agencies. This is especially true when the risk to international aid workers is too high or when war frontlines cut off displaced communities. Local groups often have the expertise, community trust and connections to overcome these barriers. 

By contrast, inadequate budgets, geographic and security barriers prevent many larger international relief agencies from meeting the overwhelming demand for shelter.

To be clear, technically, nothing in Iraqi law explicitly bars local organizations from providing shelter. For instance, since the passage of a 2011 anti-domestic violence law in the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan, women’s groups and the regional government collaborate effectively, and local groups there are allowed to run shelters.

The trouble lies elsewhere and in the interpretation of Iraqi law. In central Iraq, there are laws that do stipulate the government’s responsibility to provide for women’s shelters. Unfortunately, government officials in central Iraq have often interpreted these policies to mean that only the government can run shelters. Meanwhile, the government has yet to open adequate shelters, and the very few that do exist remain empty and unstaffed.

Thanks to this de facto policy prohibition, the few Iraqi women’s organizations able to step up to meet the need must do so covertly. Operating a shelter in a war-torn country is a deeply challenging venture; operating one clandestinely is even more so.

With limited resources, these shelters can offer only meager accommodations in few scattered places, making it difficult for survivors of violence to find them.

Local organizations must routinely relocate their shelters to protect survivors from being found. These women may have escaped attempted honor killings, domestic violence or forced marriage, and they may still be on the run from their families.

When police raids occur, officers insist that residents let their families know where they are, putting these survivors at grave risk.

Without policy protections, those who run shelters are also vulnerable to imprisonment by police and death threats by militias opposed to their work.

The list of threats goes on. But where does this opposition to shelters spring from? According to Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), “shelters are thought of as encouraging women to disobey their husbands and daughters to disobey their parents. This leads to the presumption that a shelter is a place where a group of immoral women reside without a male guardian.”

The Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Women and Family in the Parliament, Haifa El-Hilfi, echoed this sentiment stating, “there is a fear that if these shelters are opened, many women will use them to leave their families.“ This, she described, would be a “real risk that would threaten many Iraqi families.”

This attitude, stemming from stigma against domestic violence shelters, has effectively curtailed local organizations from providing other much-needed shelter, including for those now fleeing Mosul.

Many government officials publicly oppose shelters run by local groups, but their position is becoming untenable. Faced with an influx of displaced people and a lack of relief aid, some local officials in impacted towns have entered into temporary agreements with local organizations to provide much-needed shelter and other direct service provisions. For example, in the war-torn city of Samarra, where it has been too risky for international relief workers to enter, OWFI has been permitted to work to meet the needs of families escaping ISIS-controlled areas.

Now, local activists have launched an advocacy campaign, calling on the Iraqi government to implement a policy change that would make way for much-needed shelters.

A coalition of local organizations led by OWFI is advocating for the government to adopt a national framework allowing for private shelters. A specific directive from the Iraqi government clarifying that local organizations may provide these much-needed services would help bolster the whole country’s capacity to protect people fleeing violence.

Several local women’s organizations have said they would step up to help provide shelter and other supportive services if the policy changes. 

Local activists know that changing the anti-shelter policy, in this time of massive humanitarian crisis, will broaden the safety net for people fleeing all forms of violence. And it can’t come a moment too soon for the people of Mosul.