One night last fall, an armed group in Iraq raided a women’s shelter run by a local women’s group. Men armed with assault rifles kidnapped a member of their staff for ransom and forced the women’s group to negotiate for release.
The local women’s group is called OWFI – the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq – and they are the only Iraqi organization that provides shelter for women at risk of violence.
You may ask yourself how there could be only one. It’s because, despite the unprecedented security crisis in post-ISIS Iraq, outside of the Kurdistan region it remains against public policy for Iraqi NGOs to provide shelter for those escaping gender-based violence. This prohibition prevents survivors from accessing life-saving services, particularly in areas beyond the reach of international humanitarian actors. And it forces OWFI to operate their shelters clandestinely – keeping their locations secret and routinely relocating them.
This latest attack on OWFI’s shelter starkly reveals the consequences of the Iraqi government’s anti-shelter policy. It continually places local organizations, and the women and girls who seek their services, in danger of torture or death. Illicit armed actors know that these shelters operating “off-the-grid” can’t expect protection from the police or government. They can stage raids like this one with impunity.
Meanwhile, despite failing to offer official legal protection to OWFI’s shelter, when pressed by UN human rights experts on how they are confronting gender-based violence, Iraqi officials continue to point to OWFI’s work meeting the urgent needs of survivors of gender-based violence. Ironically, the government made this acknowledgment while still maintaining its anti-shelter stance and harassing OWFI on the ground.
For the last two years, OWFI and MADRE, with the help of CUNY Law School and other allies have been calling attention to a simple policy fix that could save the lives of thousands of women and girls: lift the ban on local NGOs providing shelter.
The number of reasons for making this change has only grown in those years. With 11 million people in need of assistance in Iraq and over 3 million internally displaced, the government of Iraq and international organizations are struggling to meet the increasing demand for humanitarian support. When the Iraqi army retook Mosul, thousands of displaced women and girls were freed from ISIS showing signs of both physical and psychological trauma requiring specialized medical care. Despite the clear need for the type of life-saving services that shelters provide to women and girls fleeing gender-based violence — a service local NGOs are ready, willing and able to provide — the Iraqi government has neither abolished its prohibition on NGO-run shelters, nor provided protection for them.
Providing legal protection to NGO-run shelters would give organizations like OWFI the ability to operate openly and to expand their services and reach more survivors. This would reduce the burden on the government of Iraq to meet the growing need for humanitarian support and shelter. Local organizations are often better equipped to support survivors in areas that are inaccessible to international organizations, and have gained the trust of local communities while building good working relationships with local officials. Many of these local organizations provide additional services to help survivors rebuild their lives and reduce their vulnerability to future violence.
The UN has a role to play. UN human rights bodies have affirmed the government’s behavior is in violation of international human rights law. And when the UN began working with the Iraqi government to pass the Family Protection Law, designed to protect women from domestic violence, OWFI and MADRE quickly organized a campaign calling for a provision in that law clarifying that Iraqi NGOs may provide much-needed shelter and other services to gender-based violence survivors.
At first, the general response was that it was “too difficult” to include such a provision in the draft law. The Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Women and Family in the Parliament, Haifa El-Hilfi, responded that, “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.”
Yet, we’ve seen progress: the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) recently released a human rights report, calling on the Iraqi government to pass the draft Family Protection Law with the requested shelter provision and acknowledging that civil society organizations are already providing the much-needed service without legal recognition.
In addition, the Security Council’s Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security (IEG) and numerous other international bodies have called for the government of Iraq to clarify that Iraqi NGOs may indeed “provide much-needed services to survivors of gender-based violence, including shelter.” When Lise Grande and other representatives of UNAMI and the Iraq Country Team briefed Council members in June, they called attention to the UN’s pledge to continue “to advocate and support the adoption of the Family Protection Act with provisions to allow NGOs to operate shelters for women and other vulnerable individuals fleeing violence.” Ms. Grande recommended that “[i]n the meantime, a government directive providing similar legal coverage for national NGOs and eliminating access barriers, such as the need for a judge order for entry or release into a shelter, is urgent.”
UNAMI’s call adds to a chorus of national and international bodies and institutions pushing for change. But UNAMI can still do more. They should issue a call for the government to issue an immediate directive protecting such shelters.
Recognition by UNAMI and these international bodies of the importance of allowing NGO-run shelters to protect survivors of gender-based violence is only the first step towards saving women’s lives in Iraq. While advocates on the ground and in the international arena continue to push the Iraqi government to pass the Family Protection Law, in the immediate term, UNAMI should support the call of Iraqi civil society organizations like OWFI and urge the government of Iraq to issue a directive providing legal coverage for Iraqi NGOs to operate shelters.