Safe Houses for Iraqi Women

by MADRE, An International Women's Human Rights Org.
Safe Houses for Iraqi Women

In 2007, MADRE and OWFI continued to shelter women from honor killings and life threatening violence. All of the women helped by the Safe Houses project have incredible stories; following are some recent cases.

Rasha, from the city of Diyala, is the widow of a man murdered by one of the several militias targeting so-called insurgents. Her husband’s killers continued to visit her daily at her home, raping and torturing her. Nazik, of Tikrit, left her husband, who beat her regularly. Nahida’s husband suddenly began to abuse her when he joined up with a terrorist gang. Um Missaab, a returning political prisoner attempting to reassimilate into society, suffered at the cruelty of her in-laws. Hind escaped a prostitution network, and was followed by two others, Sanna and Bushra. Nadia and her daughter escaped an oppressive marriage, and sought help from militia officials who now threaten and psychologically abuse them. Shila left her hometown of Rania, in the Kurdish territories of Northern Iraq, when plots of her murder, in the name of honor killing, surfaced. A mother and daughter from Mahmoudiya sought shelter after the daughter was raped by an impostor Mulla who claimed to have been treating her for depression.

Painstaking measures are taken to make the shelters as safe and stable as can be expected, but OWFI’s operation are still at the mercy of a government which devalues their work and sees victims as honorless women undeserving of protection; officials at all levels go out of their way to make OWFI’s business matters as difficult as possible. In addition to the larger shelters, staff members have begun to house threatened women and families in their own homes. This spreads out the women and lessens their chances of being found by their tormentors.

Children who live at the shelters are enrolled in schools, or, in more dangerous cases, tutors are arranged for private lessons at home; they are also trained in basic computer skills, in hopes of increasing their employment opportunities. All shelter residents receive health care from Nahida Ismail, a registered nurse who uses her connections with a network of volunteer doctors and gynecologists to see that all the women get proper care.

In addition to the work done in shelters, OWFI has launched several advocacy campaigns in the Kurdish North of Iraq (also known as Kurdistan) discouraging honor killings and seeking to repeal an article of the regional Constitution which endorses use of the Islamic Sharia law to uphold honor killing cases in family court. The initiatives, led by OWFI activist Houzan Mahmoud, were quite successful, rousing support from many social and intellectual groups in the area, and the offending article was removed from the criminal code.

MADRE and OWFI were deeply moved the support of the Global Giving community for this project. Your donations have been crucial to the heavy demands of being the sole shelter network for Iraqi women escaping abuse and honor killings. Thanks to you, we have been able to expand security forces, conduct more outreach, shelter more women and children, and save more lives.

We hope that you will continue to support OWFI through its new project now up on Global Giving, “Art Action for Peace: Support Young Iraqi Artists.” This project is focused on OWFI’s popular youth outreach initiative, where hundreds of young Sunnis and Shiites join together to call for an end to civil war through art, poetry, music, theater, and dance. Rather than succumbing to sectarian hatred, the young people involved work to create a society that promotes human rights and tolerance.

Again, we thank you for your support.

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Update on MADRE’s Work in Iraq November 2007

Our work with OWFI has broadened this year, in order to meet the tremendous needs of Iraqi women and young people enduring their fifth year of US occupation and uncontrolled sectarian violence. Support from Global Giving members was instrumental in helping MADRE carry out this vital work.

Amidst the chaos and violence of US-occupied Iraq, the significance of widespread gender-based violence has been largely overlooked. Yet, Iraqi women are enduring unprecedented levels of assault in the public sphere, "honor killings," torture in detention, and other forms of gender-based violence.

MADRE’s current projects with OWFI include: Safe Houses The Safe Houses project is currently comprised of five shelters and continues to identify and house Iraqi women and girls who are under threat of honor killings and other domestic violence, offer them essential counseling as well as human rights trainings, and work to increase women’s political participation and help Iraqi women resist escalating fundamentalist repression at home and in the public sphere.

The Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women In addition to supporting the shelters, MADRE also founded The Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women in 2006 to help Iraqi women who are threatened with "honor killings" make their way to freedom.

Through these two projects, we: • secure transportation and safe passage for women who are fleeing their homes to reach the shelters or other refuge; • provide food, clothing, toiletries, bedding, and medical attention as needed, for women and their children; • employ full-time security to patrol and safeguard the shelters and five staff members to run each center, including one part-time counselor to conduct intake interviews, provide individual and group trauma counseling for residents and their children; two full-time security staff; and, two full-time shelter attendants, each working twelve-hour shifts.

Equality Newspaper We are also supporting OWFI’s publication of their newspaper, called Equality, which informs readers internationally about the situation in Iraq and connects Iraqi women with resources they can turn to for assistance. The paper is distributed weekly, both nationally and internationally, and enables women committed to human rights to find one another.

Art Action for Peace This year, OWFI and MADRE are also supporting a brave group of young Sunni and Shia artists and poets who are coming together to demand peace. According to the logic of civil war, these young people from warring communities should be enemies. Instead, they are joining together through art and poetry, calling for an end to civil war, and working to create a society that promotes human rights and freedom from occupation and religious coercion. Art Action for Peace gatherings include public performances where people come together to share their poetry and music. These gatherings have been banned by Islamists who systematically torture and kill artists and musicians. Several members of Art Action for Peace have been attacked, and some killed, but Iraqis who hunger for peace flock to these gatherings despite the danger. Recent Art Action for Peace events have drawn as many as 200 hundred people.

US Public Education and Media Outreach MADRE also works to raise awareness in the US about the political, economic, and social effects of the US occupation of Iraq and US policies worldwide through our US Public Education Program. We believe that educated citizens can participate more effectively in shaping US foreign policy.

Our activities in 2007 to raise awareness in the US about US policy in Iraq have included: • Press conferences, panel discussions, and a speaking tour on the recently released MADRE report Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq, a groundbreaking report on the incidence, causes, and legalization of gender-based violence in Iraq under US occupation; • Distribution of the report through MADRE’s website at, which receives 30,000 visits per month; • Interviews and citations related to the report in The Chicago Sun-Times, Ms. magazine, Democracy Now!, Voice of America, and on ABC News Now,, Yahoo! News, and WBAI and KPFK radio; and • A national speaking tour in the US in April 2007.

Upcoming plans include: • A Spring 2008 speaking tour of US colleges, universities, and communities, featuring Vivian Stromberg, Executive Director of MADRE, and Yanar Mohammed, the Baghdad-based Chairperson of OWFI. The tour will focus on women’s realities in US-occupied Iraq, and provide audiences with tools to advocate in the US for changes in US policy—creating the potential for the construction of a truly democratic and sovereign Iraq.

We thank Global Giving members for your important support for this necessary project and hope that you will continue your support.

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The situation of women in Iraq has become utterly shocking. I have said many times that it feels as if we are living in an upside-down world. And that world is increasingly dangerous. It is heartbreaking to me to see the return of extreme, anti-women practices that we had not seen for many decades. When I grew up in Iraq, women went to school. Educated, professional working women were a part of our society. Today, a woman risks her life simply by going to the grocery store.

Our lives have been ripped from us. In recent months, as the civil war has escalated, violence against women has grown to epidemic levels. Public executions of women are now common. A colleague of mine recently saw a young woman dragged from her house by members of a militia. She was dragged with a cable around her neck to the local football field, beaten, and hung from the goal post, and then machine-gunned many times. Her brother who tried to intervene was also shot.

In our estimation, no less than 30 women are executed monthly by militias in Baghdad and its suburbs. In the first ten days of November 2006, more than 150 unclaimed bodies of women, many of which were beheaded, disfigured, or bore signs of extreme torture, moved through the Baghdad morgue. I don't tell you this to shock you, but to show you the reality we are dealing with in my homeland. The Islamist militias, who are part of the US-supported government and police forces, are deciding what is right and wrong ... and who lives and dies. And women's lives are not of value to them.

OWFI's work in Iraq is more important now than ever. As the situation for women in Iraq worsens with increased sectarian violence, it's increasingly urgent that we stand strong. And we will! In the coming weeks and months, we will continue our vital programs to save lives and inspire hope.

Through our women's shelters in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Nasariyeh, we reach out to women and help them escape the threat of "honor killings" and domestic and sectarian violence. Recently, a woman came to the shelter because she is a Sunni married to a Shiite. One of her husband's brothers threatened to kill him unless he divorced her. So she was put out on the street. If she had not found her way to the shelter, she would more than likely have been killed. We must continue to do everything we can to keep our doors open to all who need us.

OWFI publishes a newspaper called Equality to spread the word about the situation in our country, and to let women know that they can turn to us for assistance. And with MADRE's help we've started an Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women—a network of safe places that are used to help women escape life-threatening situations and find safety.

I am incredibly grateful and deeply moved to know that there are people in the United States who are standing with us in this struggle. I hope you will continue to stand with us during these dark days. Please, do whatever you can to help. Share this report with others. Tell them what we are going through. Call on your government to end its war. And if at all possible, please continue to support our work with financial contributions.

Thank you, Yanar Mohammed


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Nearly three years after George Bush launched his illegal invasion of Iraq, more Iraqi women live in fear of violence than even during the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. The climate of fear is largely due to a sharp rise in gender-based violence, including abduction, rape, forced marriage, domestic battery, and "honor killings", in which a woman is murdered by a male relative for “shaming” her family. Women have been targeted for "honor killings" for daring to make their own choices about whether and whom to marry, for adultery, and for bringing shame on the family by having been abducted or raped. These killings are not even considered murder: if a killer can demonstrate “honor” as a motive, his sentence is usually less than one year; and many cases of "honor killings" are never even reported.

MADRE and our sister organization, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), are responding to this crisis with Safe Houses for Iraqi Women. Since OWFI inaugurated Baghdad’s first battered women’s shelter, MADRE has helped OWFI to open four more shelters across the country, in Nasariyeh, Kirkuk, Erbil and, most recently, a second shelter in Baghdad. For the frightened women who knock on the doors in the middle of the night, these shelters are the difference between life and death. Reaching the Safe House ensures that they will survive to tell a new story.

Laila is a 24-year-old Iraqi woman who was a soldier in the Iraqi army. Two years ago, Laila was raped by a US soldier with whom she was stationed. Afterwards, Laila was afraid she would be raped by other soldiers too, because the man who attacked her was openly bragging about the assault. She knew she could not return to her family “disgraced," for fear of being killed, but she had nowhere else to turn. Fortunately, a close cousin of hers saw a flier for the OWFI women's shelter on the back of Equality, OWFI's main publication, which they distribute in communities wherever they can. Laila escaped to the shelter. She received medical care and peer counseling from other women who have survived violence.

Laila became part of a network of women who understand that their right to a life free of violence does not only mean the right to live free of rape and domestic abuse: it also means having the right to live free of war, religious coercion, and military occupation. With OWFI's support, Laila decided to pursue her interest in journalism. Today, she is a regular contributor to Equality, and as more women knock on the door of OWFI's Baghdad shelter each day, Laila is there to greet them and extend the circle of support that is made possible by MADRE's partnership with OWFI. Stories like Laila’s are made possible by the support of MADRE members. Please join us in working together with women in Iraq who are struggling to secure a peaceful and just future for themselves and their daughters.

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Organization Information

MADRE, An International Women's Human Rights Org.

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @madrespeaks
Project Leader:
Vivian Stromberg
Executive Director
New York, NY United States

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