Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

Rights activist calls on Iraqi lawmakers to legalize women’s shelters

Operator of underground Iraqi safehouses says misogynist ban facilitates ISIL sex trafficking

A prominent women’s rights advocate will urge the U.N. Security Council next week to help fight sex trafficking in Iraq by pushing Baghdad to legalize shelters for women fleeing abuse and enslavement.

Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi activist who founded an underground network of safehouses for women trying to escape violence, announced Wednesday that she plans to testify before the council on Oct. 13 about how Iraq’s ban on shelters of this type puts women and girls in danger.

Yanar Mohammed speaking on International Women’s Day in 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Mohammed said she hopes her appeal will pressure Iraqi lawmakers to pass a law that would legalize such shelters, which can currently operate legally only in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The measure, she told Al Jazeera, would be a first step toward protecting women from sexual violence.

“Women’s shelters have been derided by many officials as places where promiscuity is promoted,” said Mohammed, the founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Passing the law “would spread a message in the community that women are not property and might be considered citizens, and their protection is the responsibility of everybody.”

Mohammed’s shelters offer assistance to about 32 women and 25 girls in Baghdad, Karbala and Samarra who survived sexual violence. They are among about 15,000 women Mohammed estimates to have fled from territories controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Human trafficking is a major source of income for ISIL, which runs an international network of smugglers in Iraq and Syria. Rights groups have documented the systematic rape of women and girls by the armed group.

“Our safehouses provide security for women escaping the worst violence, from honor killings to [ISIL] enslavement, and we are constantly under threat from raids and harassment from government and local militias,” Mohammed said.

The use of gender-based violence and rape as a tool of war has also drawn increasing attention this month as the United Nations celebrates the 15th anniversary of its resolution 1325, which mandates the inclusion of women in peace-building processes. Mohammed will speak before the Security Council next week about resolution 1325. Despite evidence of the resolution’s practical benefits, women have been largely excluded from the negotiating table and post-conflict decision-making processes.

About 75 percent of peace negotiations are not successful because female leaders were excluded from the process, said Lisa Davis, law professor at the City University of New York.

“The last 15 years we’ve come up with a robust set of policies and resolutions on paper, but the challenge has been the implementation and also the prioritization,” said Davis, who is also the advocacy director at Madre, an international rights group supporting the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. She added that “1325 is mandatory, but it’s treated as a guiding document. It hasn’t been treated as the international law that it really is."

While Davis said the Security Council meeting was “a great point to start reflecting back on the promises” of the international community to include women in peacebuilding, she added that women’s participation is still often pushed to a back burner. In January last year, Syrian women asked the U.N. to appoint a gender adviser to defend their rights at the negotiating table in Geneva; Yemeni activists have pushed for years to include more women in that country’s peacebuilding process, and the Libyan delegation at the U.N. General Assembly last week included only two women.

“Women have to be a part of this change, according to solution 1325,” Mohammed said. “We have to be present at all levels.”

“Women surviving [ISIL] enslavement are coming back and will be coming back in the thousands,” she said. “Who will take care of them? We are not allowed to work legally.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter