Iraq: Judicial security reforms take aim at gender-based violence

10 Feb 2011

Baghdad – As it fights to improve security in the country as a whole, the Government of Iraq is also advancing a series of gender-related rule-of-law programmes to enhance protections for women in particular, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Women in Iraq have not been afforded equal access to justice or protection by law enforcement agencies, so have stayed more vulnerable and likely to face abuse.

“The security situation in general has obviously hit the vulnerable populations worst, and when we look at the situation for women, there is a fear that – rather than improving – the situation since 2003 has deteriorated,” said Helen Olafsdottir, a UNDP Iraq advisor for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. “We’ve found that there was a huge gap in terms of addressing issues of domestic violence, and gender-based violence in general.”

According to surveys conducted jointly by the Government of Iraq and UN agencies from 2006 to 2009, women in Iraq face high levels of violence, but lack adequate access to care and justice in the aftermath.

One in five women from 15 to 49 years old has suffered physical violence at the hands of her husband – some 14 percent of whom were also pregnant at the time. The real numbers are likely higher, however, since reporting of gender-based violence cases is generally low, as women fear social stigmatization and lack confidence that authorities will investigate complaints. [See here and here for sources of stats above and facts in the next paragraph.]

In Iraq, there is not a strong legal framework to protect women from abuse, compounded by a lack of shelters and a lack of adequate training for medical and law enforcement authorities to respond to instances of gender-based violence.

“We look at police, we’re looking at the court systems, we have to obviously link this up with the medical assistance, psychological assistance, social workers, legal help – the list goes on and on and on, so there’s a huge task at hand, and the Iraqi government is really starting from scratch,” said Olafsdottir. “But we do know – and the Iraqi government is taking this very seriously – we need to establish some baseline data, we need to monitor and help the government monitor how effective they’re going to be in tackling, in particular, domestic violence and gender-based violence.”

After identifying wide gaps in legal support and access to justice for survivors of gender-based violence, UNDP Iraq along with the Government of Iraq reviewed best practices in the Middle East region that paved way for decisions that led to the Iraqi Government taking concrete action in tackling gender-based violence.

As part of its three-year Family Support, Justice and Security programme, launched in April 2010, the Iraqi government has established specialized police units to support survivors of gender-based violence. Known as Family Protection Directorates, the units connect them with support services and legal assistance, and track their cases using a national database to remedy current information gaps.

In September 2010, UNDP helped coordinate a training course in Erbil for police officers, social workers, lawyers and judges from across Iraq, showcasing regional best practices for law enforcement responses and support services for survivors of gender-based violence.

Jordanian police trainers taught the first set of 40 Iraqi officers – 20 from the Central Government, and 20 from Kurdistan Region – in how to run Family Protection Directorates. The involvement of Jordanian trainers ensured cultural compatibility with Iraqi police officers, and encouraged regional cooperation.

In Baghdad, two new Family Protection Directorates have been established within existing police stations, and in Kurdistan Region, four Directorates now operate to receive survivors of gender-based violence – with female police officers prominent in all of the units. [See story here for more on above.]

With the support of UNDP, the Kurdistan Government has also drafted a new shelter policy with similar plans for the National Government on the horizon. Both entities are also in the process of drafting legislation to better respond to gender-based violence.

Through two other UNDP rule-of-law projects, each running through the end of 2011, the Government is conducting a comprehensive training programme to raise awareness among Iraqi judges of international and Iraqi standards on women’s rights and the right to fair trial.

The programme consists of 23 training courses on a range of legal and administrative topics to promote justice and improve efficiency of the sector as a whole.   Training courses are being held in Erbil, Baghdad and Basra on topics including gender based violence, gender equity, arbitration, procedural law, conducting fair and just investigations, anti-corruption, human rights, family law, strategic planning, training of trainers and judicial ethics.   Up until January 2011, more than 400 Iraqi judges attended these training courses. [Full story here.]