• Sarah Gold

During these 16 Days of Activism, let us remember that women are their own saviors.


IRAQ, Nov 25 – Over the last several years, violence against women and girls has surged – an estimated one in three women globally will experience physical and sexual violence in their lifetime. And as horrifying as this statistic is, unfortunately, it does not include other forms of violence, that often go unreported: verbal, psychological and economic violence.

In Iraq, almost 1 million women and girls are estimated to be at risk of some form of such violence. Around 26 per cent of Iraqi women report having already experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner – and Iraqi experts say many cases go unreported.

“We face a big issue of unreported domestic violence,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mina Raad, an Officer with the Women's Division of Baghdad’s Community Police. “Of the women who report, most of them ask for help from the female officers rather than the male officers.”

Indeed, women and girls are not just victims of violence; they are key actors in its prevention and response. Take community policing (CP) in Iraq, for instance – a method of law enforcement that encourages partnership between the public and the police to manage safety and security based on community needs. CP Officers are unarmed; come from the communities they serve; and conduct extensive outreach to make themselves highly visible and approachable.

Community Police Officer Sara Kadhum, who works in the Strategy Centre of [Baghdad’s] Community Police Department. Photo ©IOM 2023/Rafal Abdulateef

“It is absolutely necessity for women to hold positions as CP officers,” says Sara Kadhum, who works in the Strategy Centre of Baghdad’s CP Department. “Our participation empowers women to speak more freely: an abused woman is more comfortable reporting the problem to another woman, compared to if she was sharing this information with a man,” shares Kadhum. CP is dedicated to rebuilding trust between the public and law enforcement institutions, which is only possible with the inclusion and support of women.

“In some cases, women are too embarrassed to speak about private or sensitive matters,” Raad continues. This is particularly the case when it comes to rape, domestic violence, electronic blackmail, sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of violence that demand silence from survivors, out of shame or honor, both of which arise from the patriarchal norms that women around the world continue to fight against.

“In our society, a woman is usually embarrassed to show up in public with an unacquainted man. Our society does not welcome the idea of a woman meeting and sharing her problems with another man,” explains Suad, the head of IOM’s legal team in Ninewa’s Tel Afar district, where she leads a team providing free legal consultations, representation, awareness-raising and more in displacement-affected communities.

IOM Iraq’s legal team presents the results of a recent needs assessment, urges action to restore civil documentation. ©IOM 2023/Sarah Gold

Another challenge that exacerbates the possibility of violence against women and girls is the absence of legal documentation. Without legal documentation, women's financial assets can be managed or seized by partners or family members, subjecting them to economic control by others. They can be denied their property and access to livelihood opportunities, leaving them without their own homes and land, and make them more vulnerable to exploitation as they try to support themselves and their families. This violence affects not only the women themselves, but also their families, especially their children.

“Many women lack civil documentation like marriage certificates, and the men who were heads of their households are either lost, dead or have perceived affiliated with Daesh,” says Ayat, a lawyer working for IOM’s legal team in Anbar’s Qaim district. “Without marriage certificates, the women can’t obtain legal documentation for their undocumented children, who then cannot attend school”. Violence against women thus trickles down.

IOM Iraq’s legal team continues to provide support to women and their children. ©IOM 2023/Sarah Gold

“The women we support are so relieved when they can share their stories with a woman lawyer,” adds Ayat. “Certain cases are so sensitive that women cannot share or discuss precise details with a man comfortably or explicitly.” Being able to communicate freely, without hesitation or judgment, is imperative to making a strong legal case and seeking justice. Not only are many women put at greater ease by working with a female lawyer, but no longer alone, they are empowered by the solidarity, and encouraged by the example, ultimately making them more courageous in asserting their rights.

“I was the first woman lawyer in Zummar and Rabia. There were no women lawyers before,” shares Suad. “After me, five more women lawyers joined the court.”

Women’s leadership is growing in Iraqi civil society too, especially when it comes to protecting women and girls from violence.

“Women have the drive to realize change,” says Kawthar Al Mahamdi, President of the Soqya Foundation for Relief and Development, based in Anbar’s Fallujah district and supported by IOM through the WASL Civil Society Fund.

“However, because of the marginalization we face – especially women affected by armed groups – we often bear the burden of others' mistakes, turning us into tools for fueling conflicts,” adds Kawthar. The Foundation supports women’s economic empowerment through skills and capacity-building trainings for entry into local industries, as well as social and psychological support.

“Every woman has the right to live without fear of violence,” says Dalia Al Mimari, of the IOM WASL-supported Human Line Foundation, a woman-led and women-focused civil society organization based in Mosul. “Our vision is to end violence and discrimination against women and achieve social justice for them. Our foundation provides legal, psychological and economic support services to women victims of war, and we also work to enable them to participate effectively in the political, economic, social and cultural fields,” adds Dalia.

Whether in law enforcement offices, courts, or communities, women are leading the charge to protect their own. As we mark the 16 Days of Activism, let us not only condemn violence against women and girls, but also celebrate and support the women who are working tirelessly to prevent and respond to all forms of violence. Their leadership is not just beneficial—it is essential. Under their leadership, we can create a world where all women and girls live free from violence.

It is women who will save us all.

SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities