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Human Rights Watch
Date: 16 Jul 2003
Climate of fear: Sexual violence and abduction of women and girls in Baghdad
At a time when insecurity is on the rise in Baghdad, women and girls in
Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that the insecurity and fear of sexual
violence or abduction is keeping them in their homes, out of schools, and
away from work and looking for employment. The failure of the occupying
power to protect women and girls from violence, and redress it when it
occurs, has both immediate and long-term negative implications for the
safety of women and girls and for their participation in post-war life in
Reports of sexual violence and abduction of women and girls abound in
Baghdad. Medical practitioners, victims, witnesses, and law enforcement
authorities have documented some of these crimes. Human Rights Watch is
concerned that many other cases go unreported and uninvestigated. Some women
and girls fear that reporting sexual violence may provoke "honor" killings
and social stigmatization. For others, the obstacles to filing and pursuing
a police complaint or obtaining a forensic examination that would provide
legal proof of sexual violence hamper them from receiving medical attention
and pursuing justice. Without a referral from the police, women and girls
cannot receive forensic examinations and, in some cases, women and girls who
have sought assistance for sexual violence were refused medical attention
because some hospital staff do not regard treating victims of sexual
violence as their responsibility, or give such care low priority given their
limited resources due to the war and in its aftermath. Whatever the reason,
both documented and rumored stories of sexual violence and abduction are
contributing to a palpable climate of fear.
Many of the problems in addressing sexual violence and abduction against
women and girls derive from the U.S.-led coalition forces and civilian
administration's failure to provide public security in Baghdad. The public
security vacuum in Baghdad has heightened the vulnerability of women and
girls to sexual violence and abduction. The police force is considerably
smaller and more poorly managed when compared to prior to the war. There is
limited police street presence; fewer resources available to police to
investigate; little if any record keeping; and many complaints are lost.
Many hospitals and the forensic institute are unable to operate twenty-four
hours a day as they did before the war, thus preventing women from obtaining
medical treatment and the forensic examinations necessary to document sexual
violence in a timely manner.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has announced a commitment to
train and educate police, including training on human right standards. In
the meantime, as the occupying power, U.S.-led coalition forces have the
responsibility to ensure public order and address Iraq's law enforcement
Other problems in addressing sexual violence and abduction in Baghdad, and
Iraq more broadly, are long-term problems that have needed to be addressed
for many years. Women and girls live in an atmosphere where, if they are
raped or even believed to have been raped, they have poor legal recourse and
have well-grounded fears of social ostracism, rejection by their families,
and even physical violence. Although rape and abduction are serious crimes
under Iraqi law, there is a long-standing cultural stigma and shame attached
to rape that positions victims as the wrongdoer and too frequently excuses
or treats leniently the perpetrator.
Moreover, there are provisions in Iraqi law that address sexual violence and
abduction but do not adequately protect the human rights of women and girls
from these violations. Some of the more notable of these are provisions in
the Penal Code that allow a man to escape punishment for abduction by
marrying the victim; and allow for significantly reduced sentences for
so-called honor killings, for rape and other cases of sexual violence. In
addition to these barriers in the law, Human Rights Watch investigated cases
where police were reluctant to investigate cases of sexual violence and
abduction and other cases where the police have blamed the victim, doubted
her credibility, showed indifference, or conducted inadequate
investigations. For these reasons, many women are reluctant to file a
At the time of writing, plans for Iraq's reconstruction are taking shape and
the rights of women and girls are at stake. It is essential that all parties
involved in these plans address the state's inadequate protection of the
rights of women and girls. Those involved in the reconstruction process
should ensure that any existing and new trends toward treating women and
girls unequally before the law and discouraging women and girls from
reporting sexual violence, or punishing women and girls for being the
victims of crimes of sexual violence, are countered.
This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Baghdad,
Iraq, from May 27, 2003 to June 20, 2003. A female researcher conducted over
seventy interviews with victims of sexual violence and abduction, Iraqi
police officers, U.S. military police officers, U.S. civil affairs officers,
health practitioners, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental
organizations, and members of the CPA. Human Rights Watch found twenty-five
credible reports of women who were victims of sexual violence or abducted,
and took direct testimony from four victims. Because of the extreme
consequences that face victims of sexual violence, all victims' names in
this report are pseudonyms, and other details have been omitted in order to
protect the confidentiality of the women and girls who agreed to share their
experiences with Human Rights Watch.
To the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Iraqi authorities:
Abide by international standards that ban sexual violence and discrimination
against women and children, with particular regard to the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention
on the Rights of the Child.
As part of general judicial reform, examine legislation that in intent or
effect treat women and girls unequally, and legislation relating to rape and
other sexual violence against women and girls to ensure its compliance with
international standards. In particular, repeal Iraqi Penal Code articles 398
Take measures to include women into the police force, including by
establishing special units with women staff to deal with sexual crimes.
Establish a clear protocol for investigating sexual violence. This protocol
should specify, among other things, how and where victims of sexual violence
are to receive forensic medical attention. Distribute this protocol to all
relevant Iraqi or other officials.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs should strengthen support services
for victims of rape and sexual violence, such as counseling, testing, heath
and medical services, legal and financial services.
The Ministry of Interior and its coalition advisors should ensure that
investigating officers handling sexual violence, abduction, and rape cases
specialize in such investigations and be trained in the issues surrounding
gender violence and the use of medical and other forensic evidence.
To the U.S.-led coalition military forces:
Until the Iraqi police are fully capable of doing so, the U.S. should deploy
a special investigative unit to investigate sex-based and trafficking crimes
against women and girls. This unit should comprise experienced individuals
trained in such work, and should employ female as well as male investigators
Train military and Iraqi police about the need for sexual violence victims
to have access to immediate medical and forensic attention for the
collection of evidence.
Clarify lines of communication between civil affairs officers, whom many
women, girls, or their relatives may approach to report crimes of sexual
violence, and the military police and Iraqi police, to ensure maximum
coordination and information-sharing about cases, leads, and patterns.
Until Iraqi police forces are able to do so, publish and widely disseminate
crime statistics, which would include both crime reports received as well as
perpetrators apprehended. Work with the Iraqi police to ensure that Iraqi
record-keeping matches that of coalition forces.
To the donor community:
Special priority should be given to programs that:
Review and reform existing laws to ensure that they are consistent with
Iraq's obligations under international human rights standards, do not
discriminate on the basis of sex or gender, and afford women and girls
equality of access and opportunity.
Train law enforcement and judicial personnel in recognizing, investigating,
and prosecuting sexual violence, including sexual violence against children,
and assist law enforcement agencies in acquiring necessary forensic skills
and equipment for investigating cases of sexual violence.
Provide financial and technical assistance to civil society organizations
providing services to women and girls who have suffered sexual violence,
trafficking, forced marriage, or who fear reprisals from their families in
the form of "honor" killings. Such services may include shelter, legal
services, counseling and testing, and medical assistance, and should be
sensitive to the special needs of street children, internally displaced
persons and refugees, and members of disadvantaged social groups.
Full report (pdf* format - 416 KB)
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