Short History and Recent Developments
With a rich and diverse cultural heritage in both the pre- as well as post-Islamic era, Iraq’s poets, painters and sculptors count to the best in the Arab world. Iraq’s modern history starts with its independence from British imperial rule in 1932, the fall of the monarchy in 1958 and the birth of a short-lived republic. During the 1960’s, the Ba’ath party progressively took control of political life.
President Saddam Hussein, in power since 1979, led the country into conflicts against Iran (1980-1988) which finally formed an international coalition to push back Iraqi troops from Kuwait (1991). The repercussions of these wars and the UN embargo strained the poverty levels of this oil-rich Arab state. Further internal tensions among the Kurdish and the Shiite religious minorities turned into revolt.
The Kurdish Uprising of 1991 led to the formation of the Kurdistan National Assembly, formally established after the 1992 elections. Hussein was overthrown in 2003, by a joint American-British armed intervention. Since then, the democratic institutions were founded, and several legislative elections have taken place. However, marked by a long and complex history of conflict and war, democracy remains fragile in Iraq. Its economy is stagnated, causing poor provision of civic amenities and essential services.
Shia majority and the Sunni minority tensions continue to persist deep in Iraq. In 2014, ISIL, proclaimed Iraq as an Islamic caliphate. The same year, Islamic State militants attacked the Yazidi minority, a Kurdish-speaking religious group, massacred the boys and men, and kidnapped the women, forcing them into sexual slavery. Young children were also held in captivity alongside their mothers and were typically abused.
In 2017, the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum on the independence of their territory, which was approved by 92.7% of eligible voters. However, the results were not well received by the Iraqi government in Bagdad and it sent the Iraqi security forces to drive out the Kurdish communities residing in Kirkuk, Peshmerga and other cities in northern Iraq. Subsequently, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) lost 50% of its territories.
From 2014-2018, Iraq implemented its National Action Plan of the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. In accordance with UNSCR 1325, Iraq recognized women’s participation in decision-making processes, their protection and prevention from violence, as well as the promotion of women rights.
Women making 49.4% of Iraq’s total population are considered poorly represented in the political sphere. They have limited access to high level government positions. With the help of a 25% gender quota, women occupy a quarter (26.4%) of parliamentary seats within the Iraqi parliament as of 2020. In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a minimum quota of 30% for reserved parliamentary seats for women. Initiatives taken by women leaders are often opposed by their male counterparts.
Women in Iraq represent only 18% of the country’s paid working force and 13% of the national unemployment rate. Traditionally, women’s role has been confined to domestic responsibilities, however, during the decades of 1970’s and 1980’s, women's entrance to the labour-market was enabled by a shortage of labour caused by the conscription of men during periods of conflict.
Despite their endurance to assume further extra burden, women continued to face the denial of their basic human rights. Indeed, even after ISIL’s persecution of the Yazidi minority, approximately 3000 Yazidi women are reported as still missing, while only a small minority was able to escape. Women’s capacity to contribute to rebuilding of their own country is severely undermined and subsequently restricted after the Gulf War. Their rising engagement in social and political life was negatively rewarded in Iraq and their rights have been side-lined, constrained, and further threatened.
However, in 2008, polygamy was partially abolished in Iraqi Kurdistan regions and Female Genital Mutilation (FMG) was declared criminal. Child marriage is a widespread challenge in Iraq. In 2018, 24% of Iraqi girls were married before turning 18, while 5% were married before the age of 15. Iraq has committed itself to the elimination of child, forced, and early marriage by 2030 to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and has agreed to various conventions that protect children, such as CEDAW.
Women’s organizations have long advocated for the abolition of sex trafficking, the criminalization of domestic violence, and assisted survivors of sexual-and gender-based violence. Yet, in crises and conflicts, a large part of much needed resources do not reach women organisations, overlooking the needs of women and girls, as well as failing to integrate and take seriously the participation of women and girls in decision-making processes and crisis response mechanisms. Gender Concerns International recognizes that women are particularly affected amid instability and conflict and promotes women’s equal and parity-based role in post-conflict reconstruction and democratic participation.
The impacts of COVID-19 on society and particularly on women
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally burdened the underfunded health sector in Iraq, which lacks basic resources and staffing. This has furthermore weakened the capacity of the government to effectively respond to the health crisis, which could cause serious long-term problems.
In response to this crisis, several regional and Iraqi women organizations have been active in disseminating correct information and best practices through campaigns, such as awareness sessions and networking events for Iraqi women entrepreneurs to become civil agents in the fight against COVID-19. Overall, women in Iraq have portrayed “a great deal of resilience in the various sectors as leaders, health and social workers, and responders to domestic and gender-based violence.”
Within such a context, Gender Concerns International acknowledges women’s leadership to deal with crisis and renders its support to women organisations, national institutions and other actors of change during these difficult times in Iraq. We support the female healthcare personnel that make up the majority of front-line workers in the fight against COVID-19. Women have carried the burden of the health crisis disproportionately, having not only to care for their households, but also for the entire community. The measures implemented to reduce the spread of the virus, namely, curfews and lockdowns, intensify already existing gender-based inequalities such as the sudden rise of (domestic) violence against women. Political leadership and women organisations should intensify their cooperation to offer effective relief to the concerned communities. Support to trigger the political will to impact the needed change is crucial in Iraq and the international community needs to be further vigilant to safeguard social justice for, and political participation of, women in Iraq.