A day in the life of Suaad Allami: The plight of Iraqi women refugees

Date: 28 October 2014

Suaad Alami. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Suaad Allami. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

An award-winning Iraqi lawyer and activist for women’s rights from Sadr City in Baghdad, Suaad Allami founded the NGO “Women for Progress” in 2007. It manages a legal clinic and “one-stop shop” for legislative advocacy, domestic violence counselling, vocational training and other services. She was invited to speak at this year’s Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security on 28 October, which focuses on displaced women as leaders and survivors.

She gives us a glimpse at how thousands of Iraqi women and girls are coping...

Yazidi children and women
Yazidi children and women who fled Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain re-enter the country from the Syrian Arab Republic, at a border crossing in the town of Peshkhabour in Dohuk Governorate. Photo: ©UNICEF/Khuzaie

Across Iraq, families with small children and babies in arm walk for hours on end under the scorching heat, searching for a safe haven from the extremist violence of ISIS militants. Carrying what few belongings they can that might aid their survival, they abandon their lives for a future in which the only certainty is their displacement.

This is not the first time Suaad Allami, an Iraqi lawyer and women’s activist, has witnessed the upheaval of her society by terrorist violence. But she says the takeover of the northern city of Mosul by ISIS this June, “was a shock to all of us” — particularly women and girls. The ensuing wave of violence has displaced approximately 1.8 million people internally, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Iraq refugee camp
Displaced women fill containers at a water point in the Khazar transit camp in the northern-eastern city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo: ©UNICEF/Khuzaie

Refugee and internally displaced women and girls who are fleeing the conflict in Iraq face heightened risks of sexual and gender-based violence in the cramped and unsafe confines of refugee camps, where families share little but “a mattress, some blankets, a water container and one restroom for the whole camp,” says Ms. Allami.

The close quarters of the camps has put a strain on daily life, particularly given Iraq’s conservative society, where women and girls do not normally mix with men and boys of other families.

refugee mother and son
A Syrian refugee mother holds her son Ahmed inside their one-room family tent in the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq. Photo: ©UNICEF/Schermbrucker

Young girls’ education has been disrupted as families take shelter in their former schools, and women have been impacted by the loss of economic opportunities, unable to go back to their jobs or find others while they are displaced.

In the absence of fathers and brothers who have left their families to fight ISIS, many women have taken on the responsibilities of their husbands and the care of other family members, says Ms. Allami.

woman and child in Domiz camp
A refugee woman walks with her daughter in the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq. Photo: ©UNICEF/Lovell

“If the woman is a victim of gender-based violence or trafficking, that’s because of her economic conditions that force her to accept or to live with this abuse,” says Ms. Allami.

She says she’s also concerned about the possibility of early marriage among girls, which could be used to alleviate economic hardship. This is why economic empowerment initiatives are crucial for women, she says.

Painting a picture which echoes across conflict zones, Ms. Allami speaks of the horrific abductions of displaced Yazidi women and girls in particular, who are being forced by ISIS militants to convert to Islam, or be killed.

“They [ISIS militants] are using them as a tool against the men who are fighting them. They sell them from group, to other group, to other group. And each time, they rape them,” she says.

Yazidi woman washing clothes
A displaced Yazidi woman washes clothes in a bucket while a boy drinks water from a plastic container at a water point in the Bajid Kandala camp in Iraq, near the border with the Syrian Arab Republic. Photo: ©UNICEF/Khuzaie

While displaced women are most concerned about meeting their immediate needs – food, water and shelter – Ms. Allami says social services are needed to address their long-term recovery. For Yazidi women who have escaped back to their families, for example, there are no services to help them deal with the stigma of sexual violence, she says.

While a number of UN agencies, international organizations and local NGOs are on the ground working to alleviate the situation, Ms. Allami says Iraq has no crisis management system “to meet the needs immediately of the IDPs or refugees,” especially given the influx of refugees from Syria.

Prior to the opening of the open debate, Suaad Allami greets María Cristina Perceval, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the UN and President of the Security Council for October. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Prior to the opening of the open debate, Suaad Allami greets María Cristina Perceval, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the UN and President of the Security Council for October. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Ms. Allami hopes her presence at the Security Council’s Open Debate on women, peace and security will demonstrate that Iraqis need more than military solutions.

Iraq’s national security system and efforts to address extremism must acknowledge preexisting conditions faced by women and include them in the peacebuilding process, she stresses in her address.

“Women must be supported in their efforts to connect formal and informal justice systems,” she says, calling on the Security Council and Member States to recommit to the full implementation of the women, peace and security agenda. “All human beings have the right to be safe and live a life of dignity.”

On behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, Suaad Allami reads a statement to the UN Security Council on 28 October 2014. She focused on three key issues: women's participation, multi-sectoral responses and conflict prevention. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
On behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, Suaad Allami read a statement to the UN Security Council on 28 October 2014. She focused on three key issues: women's participation, multi-sectoral responses and conflict prevention. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

For more information about the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, visit our special In Focus compilation.