A woman hangs out washing to dry at an informal shelter for Yazidis refugees who fled ISIS attacks in Iraq.
A woman hangs out washing to dry at an informal shelter for Yazidis refugees who fled ISIS attacks in Iraq.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Yanar Mohammed, a women’s rights advocate in Iraq, is known for the "underground railroad" of shelters she runs for women escaping ISIS. After a year of struggling to keep the shelters open and safe from police and government officials, who treat these shelters as illegal, Mohammed is now pressing the international community to also take action against the violence faced by women in her country.

"ISIS‘s use of sexual and gender-based violence have been discussed at length in this chamber," Mohammed, founder of the Baghdad-based , said last week when addressing the U.N. Security Council. "Yet civil society efforts which seek to combat this violence are stifled."

Mohammed’s plea comes at a critical moment. The U.N. is hosting reflective events this month to commemorate the 15th anniversary of its resolution 1325. The U.N. document calls for women’s equal participation in peace and security negotiations. Mohammed now is questioning how the resolution is being enforced in Iraq.

She said in her Oct. 13 address that the Iraqi government has not been asked, demanded or forced by the U.N. to apply any of the resolution’s provisions. She hopes the Security Council will pressure her government to change its laws concerning women in the civil-war torn state, including policies that hinder her own organization and others from operating women’s shelters and radio stations. In the absence of government-sponsored services in Iraq, the most vulnerable populations depend on local women’s organizations, Mohammed added.

Mohammed was in , when ISIS had just seized Mosul and violence against women surged with their mounting territorial control. At that time she corroborated reports that women forced into "jihad marriages" with ISIS members were committing suicide, which has since continued. Her shelters provide a safe space for female ISIS survivors, especially in Kerbala, where the militant group targets women who do not have male family members.

Long-Term Threat

People thought ISIS was a passing threat in Iraq and that kidnappings of women were exaggerated, Mohammed said in a phone interview from New York.

But today, the number of Iraqi women kidnapped by the militant group has climbed to 4,000, of which 3,000 come from the Yazidi religious community in northern Iraq, she said. For two years, ISIS has been organizing a systematic campaign of human enslavement and the trafficking of women and girls to fund themselves, including in government-controlled areas.

In response to growing needs, runs eight shelters in Baghdad, Kerbala and Samarra harboring over 50 women. Mohammed estimates the number of women who have fled ISIS is close to 15,000 right now. The organization plans to open another shelter for Yazidi women soon.

Mohammed has been said to be running an "underground railroad" because her shelters are clandestine, under the threat of not only ISIS, but also the authorities meant to be protecting and supporting women. Although shelters are not legally banned in Iraq, Mohammed said they are treated as such by police and government officials.

"The women’s nongovernmental organizations are being treated as though they’re doing a criminal act," Mohammed said, explaining that local governments often use legal loopholes to prevent these organizations from registering and that police have raided their shelters under the pretense that they were brothels.

This happens, in part, because of Iraq‘s 2012 anti-trafficking law that says Iraq‘s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for running shelters. Authorities interpret this law to mean that only the government can run shelters, not nongovernmental organizations. However, no state-run shelters have opened following the law. And with no other laws addressing the issue, the threat of raids looms over Mohammed’s shelters.

Mohammed has been pushing for Iraq to pass laws permitting these shelters. Last year, she urged for their acknowledgment in .

National Action Plans, developed by governments and civil society groups to help implement resolution 1325, outline specific measures countries should take on women, peace and security. Iraq became the first Middle Eastern country to adopt a National Action Plan on this resolution in February 2014, joining almost 50 other countries that range geopolitically.

While Iraq‘s National Action Plan does not specifically demand amending the 2012 anti-trafficking law, it draws attention to Iraq‘s lack of safe houses for women and the need for gender-segregated data on conflict-related violence against women and trafficking.

Need for ‘Meaningful Change’

Yifat Susskind, the executive director of MADRE, the New York-based women’s organization that supports the work of the Organization of Women’s Freedom, said that a National Action Plan is simply a proposal and that meaningful change comes when governments actually move forward with new policies.

She pointed out that Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., acknowledged the Iraqi government for referencing resolution 1325. At the same meeting, however, Mohammed discussed how a lack of political will in Iraq has blocked the resolution from being realized.

"On the legislative side, nothing has moved," Mohammed told Women’s eNews. The details laid out in the plan have not been implemented at the national level and the need for laws permitting nongovernmental organizations to run shelters is more urgent than ever, she added.

Months after they adopted the plan, the Iraqi government even considered passing a personal status law that would have allowed adult men to marry 9-year-old girls and would have legalized rape within marriage, but the law was never voted on by Iraq‘s Parliament.

Mohammed believes minimal funding was the initial reason the government did not take steps to implement the plan.

A by released calls funding "the most serious and unrelenting obstacle" to the women, peace and security agenda. It urges an increase in funding for women’s organizations and notes that just 14 percent of aid to Iraq from 2012-13 targeted gender equality.

However, Susskind said that implementing National Action Plans are not costly. Rather, they rely on a government’s impetus to draft and pass new laws. She also emphasized that while violence against women in Iraq and Syria seems daunting, people who want to help should not freeze up amid a daily news barrage of harrowing stories.

"We can reach across borders," she said, urging people to support local women’s groups, which often work with few financial resources.

MADRE’s upcoming project with Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq , she said, will be a rape-crisis and rape shelter for women in northern Iraq.

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