Iraqi Refugees: Women on the Margins

By Dawn Calabia
Many Iraqi women refugees, sheltered temporarily in Syria, bear the scars and trauma of extreme violence suffered in their homeland.  Ethnic and religious-based persecution tore apart previously stable communities in Iraq, removing these women and their children from their traditional support systems. Stripped of the normal protections of home and extended family life they exist on the margins of society. 

Refugee widows and single women without the support and protection of male relatives face substantial psychological and physical risk.  When we were speaking with Iraqi refugees earlier this year, many single heads of families remarked on their ability to access Syrian public health care and education for their children and the kindness of many Syrians. Yet other refugee widows and single women expressed their unhappiness and fear over some of neighbors questioning their character and virtue, believing good women would not live alone. “Some call us whores, thinking that we are fallen women, unwholesome, because we live alone, go out to work, to get food and will not return to Iraq.”  When some of these trauma survivors finally build the courage to seek medical and psychological care in Syria, they are likely to run into prejudice that suggests rape or violence against a woman was something she probably provoked and deserved.  Syria has few trained psychologists, psychiatrists or mental health professionals skilled in dealing with the victims of rape, of torture, or kidnapping. Thus some of the treatments suggested can actually further traumatize these women and prevent their regaining their sense of dignity and worth. 
Many refugee women are alone with their fears and memories of physical and psychological abuse inflicted to destroy their communities and force their flight. Uncertainty about the future, the high cost of living in Syria, and the lack of access to legal work or opportunities for or skills training imprison them in the fears of the past.  
Syria grants Iraqi refugees only short term residence permits, increasing many refugees’ fear of the future given the still unsettled conditions in their homeland and the very small likelihood of resettlement abroad.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked for the resettlement of over 85,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, many female headed households and single women who are victims of torture and abuse.  Yet the international community has offered places for only one-third of them, and some resettlement locations also lack the needed medical and psychological services these abused women require to enable them to build new lives for themselves and their children.  
To survive financially, some families are forcing young daughters into very early marriages (18 is the legal age in Iraq) or even prostitution. In Syria, foreign prostitutes face arrest and deportation. Trafficking of women has increased and even if rescued, these victims face little hope of regaining a normal life or being accepted into Iraqi society. Worse still, victims of abuse or trafficking could be subject to honor killings by their own families or communities.  There, as in Iraq, the perpetrators of honor crimes rarely receive punishments commensurate with the severity of their acts.  
The international community and the governments of Iraq and Syria need to act to end their tolerance of honor crimes and treat such attacks on women as criminal acts. More attention should be given to public education as well as police and judicial action to protect the rights of women in their families and in the community and to developing programs to aid women to recover from such abuse.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Congress to re-introduce the International Violence Against Women Act.
For the next few weeks, Refugees International will be posting about the rights of women around the globe as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.