Amid worsening armed violence in Iraq, the Baghdad-based Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq is working to help women who have been harmed and driven out of their homes. The group is reaching out to cities with the largest numbers of women displaced by the fighting.
"Karbala is our target place to go to because this is a city where a big population of displaced have gone and where there are families without men, which are very vulnerable," Yanar Mohammed, the group's president, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Located southwest of Bagdad, the city holds a holy site of Shia Islam: the shrine of Imam Hussain, the second grandson of the prophet Mohammed. The city is now itself under threat from insurgents.
While men on both sides of the conflict in Iraq are being shot by militants or taken by force and sent to the front lines with the army, women are being kidnapped and raped, Mohammed said. She is also concerned about the situation in the northern city of Mosul, where atrocities against women have been concentrated. The city was seized on June 10 by Sunni fundamentalists with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Women "are being kidnapped from their house by the ISIS warriors and forced into what they call into a 'jihad marriage.'"
Jihad marriage, also known as "sexual jihad," is a term for women who willingly offer sexual comfort to fighters to assist the cause of establishing Islamic rule. In the cases to which Mohammed refers, however, the women are not volunteers. They are forced.
Over the past week, 18 women were taken from their houses and raped by ISIS in Mosul, according to the latest news obtained by Mohammed.
Suicides Follow Rape
Large media outlets have reported that four women who were raped have committed suicide. "In one of the cases, the woman's brother committed suicide also because he was unable to prevent the warriors from taking his sister," Mohammed said. "In the Iraqi culture when a woman cannot be protected by her family and she is taken and raped, it becomes a source of a huge stigma and dishonor to the family."
To counter the insurgency, men are now being taken and sent by force to fight on the front lines with Shiite militias, Mohammed said. This means women who are left alone with child care are becoming more vulnerable to violence.
The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq provides shelter to women "who are being targeted for exercising their human rights," Yifat Susskind, executive director of the New York-based women's advocacy group MADRE, a partner organization, said in a phone interview earlier this week. Commonly the women are threatened by "gender-based violence, by honor killing, by domestic violence or have been forced into prostitution and have escaped." Now they are victims of the armed conflict.
MADRE's staff has been exchanging daily phone calls with it partner group in Baghdad since the news broke earlier last week that ISIS had seized Mosul.
Thousands of displaced, particularly children, were sheltered in schools, hospitals and mosques outside Mosul, many of them without adequate water, sanitation, or shelter, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF. Many fled with little more than the clothing on their backs and arrive without money.
Longstanding Problems in Mosul
Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is mostly Sunni and many residents have long complained of discrimination and mistreatment by the Shiite-dominated central government. Sunni fundamentalist fighters have vowed to capture Baghdad and Shia holy cities further south after overrunning Mosul and driving the army out of northern provinces.
ISIS already captured the city of Fallujah in January. Mosul, located at the strategically vital intersection of routes linking Iraq to Turkey and Syria, is considered a more major victory.
More than 500,000 of Mosul residents have fled since the surprise of the attack, according to U.N. agencies. Although there is no figure available on the number of women at risk, "in any conflict, women and children make up between 75 and 90 percent of the displaced," said Susskind.
When asked about the consequences of the establishment of an Islamic state by the ISIS, Susskind pointed to parts of Syria where ISIS has been associated with the restriction of movement by women, rape, abductions, forced prostitutions and increase in forced and child marriages. "We just have to look at what happens in eastern Syria where ISIS is also governing huge pieces of territory," she said. "What you see is very clear, which is widespread and systematic violations of women's rights."
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has so far been unable to form a coherent response the al-Qaeda-inspired group. Last week he failed to get parliament to declare a state of emergency and asked President Barack Obama for help to combat the growing insurgency.
"There is not a military solution to this crisis," said Susskind. She said the current insurgency is the result of social, economic and political problems. "These problems cannot be resolved at gunpoint . . . what needs to happen is an end to the sectarian politics in Iraq and that's not a short term proposition, that's a process."
Susskind criticizes the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government and blames the United States for staying silent about them. "What's happening in Iraq right now is not the result of the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq," she said. "It is the result of invasion and occupation by the United States."
Earlier this week, the United Nations accused ISIS of "systematic" executions in and around the north-central city of Tikrit. Reports of mass killings committed by Sunni fundamentalists have been emerging as Shia government forces attempt to recover from their humiliating rout a week ago.