Op-ed: Counting the cost to women in Iraq: a matter of global conscience

Date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's August. It's hot. When you come home from a long day at work it's a relief to wash away the day's worries.

Spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been forced out of their homes. They are living in the dusty streets, in parks, in UN camps, anywhere they can find, trying to escape the relentless heat of the 40 degree day. Daydreams of clean water have become a distant memory.

Urgently fleeing the latest advances of the ruthless extremist group calling itself the Islamic State, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them from vulnerable minority communities, have left their homes in the last two weeks. In a desperate search for safety, many have now fled Nineweh for Kurdistan, some of them braving extreme conditions of deprivation, spending days on exposed mountainsides. These families lack drinking-water, food, shelter and medicine. In total, since June, more than 1.4 million people have left their homes in Iraq as a result of the crisis.

For Iraqi women and girls, the violent takeover of their towns by extremists poses an immediate, specific and terrifying threat to their security and rights. In addition to losing their homes, belongings and sources of livelihood, women and girls face targeted kidnappings, rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage, according to reports from areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State.

Many of these women are fleeing alone, having been recently widowed by the conflict or separated from their husbands. They have to provide for others, with few resources or skills to cope, and while they are still grieving. In some cases they have suffered violent abuse, either as a result of the conflict or from within their own household and communities. We know from studies carried out by UN Women that some men in refugee communities, feeling powerless as they sit in a tent with little to do all day, admit to becoming more violent towards their families. Even the last refuge becomes unsafe for women and girls. Psycho-social support that addresses this violence and the specific needs of women is essential to help them and their families find a way to survive and to cope in highly insecure settings.

As the world marks International Humanitarian Day, we acknowledge how women and men in the humanitarian field are themselves affected by the horror and trauma witnessed in the troubled parts of the world in which they work. They are bringing more than basic necessities to people in need – they are bringing hope. We recognize this work with respect and gratitude.

The United Nations has now designated this crisis as the highest level of emergency in order to accelerate the response. That response must recognize and respond to the particular experiences of women and girls and help them cope with their trauma, including the stigmatization that goes with sexual violation. The damage to these women and to the generation of girls growing up in these circumstances is a cost that Iraq will continue to pay for many years. It will continue to rise unless we can halt this crisis. Vulnerable communities must be protected from violence. The international community must massively ramp up humanitarian assistance. This is a matter of global conscience. We call for immediate action.

This op-ed was originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País:  http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/08/18/planeta_futuro/1408359099_527030.html