Rape's vast toll in Iraq war remains largely ignored

Many rape victims have escaped to Jordan but still don't have access to treatment and counseling.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Khalida: The mother of two, shown in silhouette, was raped during the war.
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As though recoiling from her own memories, Khalida shrank deeper into her faded armchair with each sentence she told: of how gunmen apparently working for Iraq's Interior Ministry kidnapped her, beat and raped her; of how they discarded her on a Baghdad sidewalk.

But her suffering did not end when she fled Iraq and became a refugee in Jordan's capital, Amman. When Khalida's husband learned that she had been raped, he abandoned her and their two young sons.

Rumors spread fast in Amman; soon, everyone on her block knew that she was without a man in the house. Last month, her Jordanian neighbor barged into her apartment and attempted to rape her.

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Khalida never reported the incident. Like tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, she does not have a permit to live or work here, and she is afraid that if she turns to authorities for help she will get deported. So instead of seeking punishment for her assailant, she latched the flimsy metal door of her apartment and stopped going outside.

Her story sheds light on a problem that is little researched, poorly understood, and largely ignored: Iraqi rape victims who now live in Jordan illegally and without protection. Sexual assault is heavily stigmatized in the Middle East, and victims are often afraid to talk about it to anyone, fearing that their families will abandon them. And their shaky status in Jordan leaves them afraid to seek help and vulnerable to new assaults and abuse. They fear persecution by Jordanian immigration authorities almost as much as they fear returning to Iraq.

"The lack of legal status does lead to these sorts of protection issues [and] puts them in very exploitative situations," says Imran Riza, who heads the mission in Jordan of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency that assists Iraqis in Jordan. Women like Khalida, he says, "are certainly vulnerable, and much more vulnerable than others."

Rape is a common weapon of any war; no one knows how many Iraqi women have been raped since the war began in 2003. Most crimes against women "are not reported because of stigma, fear of retaliation, or lack of confidence in the police," MADRE, an international women's rights group, wrote in its 2007 report about violence against women in Iraq. Some women, like Khalida, are raped by Iraqi security forces. A 2005 report published by the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights found that women held in Interior Ministry detention centers endure "systematic rape by the investigators."

A handful of organizations are working to help rape victims in Iraq. MADRE, together with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, operates several shelters and safe houses in Baghdad for Iraqi rape victims, where the women have access to healthcare and counseling.

But militias often target women's rights advocates in Iraq, so these facilities are "a clandestine network," operated by "mostly somebody who at a great risk to themselves has opened a room for these victims," says Yifat Susskind, MADRE's communications director. The shelters have helped several thousand Iraqi women since 2003. Most rape victims learn about the shelters from other women.

Documenting sexual assault in Iraq by international researchers remains complicated because of widespread violence. "There's been a security issue, so we haven't been able to get people on the ground to look at the issue for a long time," says Marianne Mollmann, who leads women's rights advocacy at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which published its last report about rape in Iraq in 2003.

Similarly, no one has tried to estimate how many Iraqi refugees have been raped while in Iraq or in Jordan, says Mohamad Habashneh, a Jordanian psychiatrist who works with Iraqi rape victims.

Mr. Habashneh has treated approximately 40 Iraqi rape victims for clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But he estimates that they are just a fraction of Iraqi refugees who had been raped.

Psychiatrists like Habashneh charge between $25 and $40 per visit, too expensive for most Iraqi refugees, who, like Khalida, live hand-to-mouth on monthly handouts of about $100 from international agencies.

Many victims are afraid to go outside or travel to a clinic out of fear of being detained by Jordanian authorities.

To help these women, women's rights organizations in Jordan must coordinate with larger agencies, such as UNHCR, to provide care and programs that would help the victims earn money "because rape survivors are alienated from their family and therefore have no way to sustain themselves," Ms. Susskind says.

But so far, these resources are not available for most Iraqi rape victims in Jordan. There are no support groups, no counselors, no hot lines, an no one to soothe Khalida when she has flashbacks that make her relive the day when assailants dressed in police uniforms arrived at the Oil Ministry where she worked and said they were taking her in for questioning.

She did not tell her husband that she had been raped but he figured it out. Now, Khalida does not blame him for going away, or for leaving her so vulnerable to men who wish to prey on her.

"I have his phone number," she says, sobbing quietly. "I dial it sometimes for the kids to talk to their father. Sometimes, because I love him, I like to hear his voice. But when I say 'hello' he hangs up."

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