By Hajer Naili
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq thousands of women and girls have been trafficked for sexual exploitation, finds a report published today by the London-based Social Change Through Education in the Middle East.
Domestic violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence have become a common practice among the internally displaced persons in Iraq and the large refugee communities in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries of the Middle East, according to the report.
Iraqi women's vulnerability to trafficking began after the Gulf War in 1991 and the economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Baath regime, the study says. In the preceding two decades--from 1979 to 1991--Saddam's regime appeared to foster women's civil participation. Girls were allowed to attend school, which narrowed the literacy gap and provided women more access to high-ranking jobs in government agencies and ministries.
Divorce laws were liberalized, giving women more leeway to exit marriages. In 1980 women gained the right to vote and run for political office.
Two major exceptions to these liberalizations were Iraqi women from Shia Muslim and Kurdish communities who were subject to religious discrimination and highly vulnerable to rape by Saddam Hussein's militias and military personnel, or to being trafficked into Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Sudan, according to a 2010 study from the Norwegian Church Aid quoted by the study.
The 1991 Gulf War led to tough economic sanctions by the international community designed to overthrow Saddam's Baath Party. That brought the country's economy to its knees. Employed women were dismissed from their jobs, freedoms were restricted and girls' school attendance dropped.
These restrictions worsened the exploitation of women in the workplace and led to an alarming increase in prostitution. "A huge number of widowed and single mothers, facing either no income or a monthly salary of just a few dollars, were forced into prostitution to merely survive," the study finds.
Facing financial difficulties, some families pushed daughters into prostitution, sold them to traffickers or forced them into marriage.
Authors tell the story on one young woman, Amira, whose " family was facing financial problems, when a man came to her father with an offer to hire Amira for $200 a month in order to help take care of his wife, who was handicapped. The impoverished family agreed with this tempting offer, but Amira, 17 years old, had no idea what was in store for her. Her work was not restricted to only housework; she had to have sexual intercourse with the son, and friends of, the man who hired her."
Confronted with this lack of security and the absence of punishment for such crimes, the report finds women and girls often confining themselves to their homes out of fear of being raped or kidnapped.
"We are all afraid and I cannot go alone anywhere. Even my older daughters, I fear for them. This is not a normal life we are living anymore," authors quoted a pharmacist in Bagdad.
Professional traffickers are very often women involved in the sex industry, authors say. These traffickers target girls and young women--often in cities or public transportation systems--who have often fled their homes out of fear of abuse, forced marriage or the threat of honor crimes. The traffickers pretend to provide assistance, offering to take the girls to shelters that turn out to be brothels. In other cases, male solicitors and taxi drivers are recruited by trafficking gangs to lure vulnerable young girls.
The report also explores the rise of Syria s mut'a marriages, known also as temporary marriages, which can be allowed among some Shia communities. The practice, with varying degrees of social acceptability, can be abused for trafficking purposes so that a girl or woman is married off on a Friday for an agreed price, and on the following Sunday the couple is divorced.
Research suggests that "the rates at which these mut'a marriages are carried out intensifies in the summer when male tourists visit Syria from the Gulf." Similar practices have also been observed in Lebanon.
Salma, for instance, was forced by her father into a mut'a marriage with her cousin at age 15. After 48 hours, after sexually exploiting her, he abandoned her. Her father refused to take her back. Instead he decided to take her to Syria to find her mother. At the border, her father left, selling her to a stranger who subjected her to a series of rapes and forced her into sex work in a Damascus nightclub for two years. Upon becoming pregnant, she was turned over to the streets of Damascus.
"Although this particular kind of marriage is not explicitly called prostitution, it is in effect sexual exploitation, often forced, as means of either securing livelihood, or generating profit." the report says.
Traffickers tend to target the youngest girls and women, for whom they can get the highest prices. "For virgin girls, the sale price can reach thousands of dollars and in some devastating cases; girls are obliged by their traffickers to undertake painful and dangerous hymen operations in order that they might be re-sold again as virgins."
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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.
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