(Beirut) – The Iraqi parliament should set penalties for the crime of domestic violence, remove provisions that prioritize reconciliation over justice, and improve victim protections in a domestic violence bill, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter and memorandum to the speaker of parliament.

Parliament is completing its review of the draft Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which was introduced in 2015. Parliament should make key amendments and then urgently approve the bill.

Demonstrators in Baghdad call International Women's Day a “day of mourning” in protest of Iraq's new draft Jaafari Personal Status Law, which would restrict women's rights in matters of inheritance, parental and other rights after divorce, make it easier for men to take multiple wives, and allow girls to be married from age 9. March 8, 2014. In March 2016, the Iraqi government told a UN treaty body that the draft Jaafari law “has been withdrawn and the Iraqi Government has no plans to resubmit it, let alone adopt it.”

“A strong domestic violence law could help save Iraqi women’s lives,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi parliament should make sure the final bill includes essential provisions to prevent domestic violence, protect survivors, and prosecute the abusers.”

Domestic violence is a global phenomenon and remains a serious problem in Iraq. The Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) 2006/7 found that one in five Iraqi women are subject to physical domestic violence. A 2012 Ministry of Planning study found that at least 36 percent of married women reported experiencing some form of psychological abuse from their husbands, 23 percent reported verbal abuse, 6 percent reported physical violence, and 9 percent reported sexual violence. While more recent national studies are not available, women’s rights organizations continue to report a high rate of domestic violence.

The strengths of the draft bill include provisions for services for domestic violence survivors, protection orders (restraining orders) and penalties for their breach, and the establishment of a cross-ministerial committee to combat domestic violence. However, the memorandum identifies several gaps and approaches in the bill that would undermine its effectiveness.

A strong domestic violence law could help save Iraqi women’s lives. The Iraqi parliament should make sure the final bill includes essential provisions to prevent domestic violence, protect survivors, and prosecute the abusers.

Rothna Begum

Middle East women’s rights researcher

The draft law calls for the parties to be referred to family reconciliation committees and for prosecutions of abusers to be dropped if reconciliation is reached. But women in Iraq are often under tremendous social and economic pressure to prioritize the family unit over their own protection from violence. United Nations guidance provides that mediation should be prohibited in all cases of violence against women and at all stages of legal proceedings because mediation removes cases from judicial scrutiny. Promoting such reconciliation incorrectly presumes that both parties have equal bargaining power, reflects an assumption that both parties may be equally at fault for violence, and reduces accountability for the offender.

“By promoting family reconciliation as an alternative to justice, the draft law undermines protection for domestic violence survivors,” Begum said. “The government should send a message that beating up your wife won’t be treated leniently through mediation sessions, but instead be regarded as a crime.”

While the draft law defines domestic violence as a crime, it fails to set penalties. It also does not repeal provisions in the Iraqi Penal Code that condone domestic violence. These include provisions that husbands have a right to punish their wives and that parents can discipline their children. Those responsible for “honor” violence or killings can benefit from reduced sentences as the Penal Code provides for mitigated sentences for violent acts including murder for so-called “honourable motives” or if a man catches his wife or female relative in the act of adultery or sex outside of marriage.

Other recommended changes include:

  • Setting out specific duties for both the general police and specialized police officers in responding to domestic violence. Police play an important role in responding to domestic violence and can help determine whether a victim is able to pursue remedies through the justice system.
  • Outlining various types of evidence that can be considered in domestic violence cases. Attacks tend to happen in homes behind closed doors where often there are no witnesses other than children, who typically cannot testify.
  • Distinguishing between short-term emergency orders and longer-term protection orders, including making clear that short-term orders can be issued without all parties present on the basis of a victim’s testimony, whereas a longer-term order would allow for a full hearing and review of evidence.

The bill provides for the establishment of government shelters, but it should require coordination with local women’s rights organizations on the administration, training, and operation of such shelters, and permit privately run shelters for survivors of domestic violence. This is particularly important given that women’s rights nongovernmental organizations, which have provided such shelters, have often been subject to physical attack and threats by offenders and have faced hostility by some government officials, Human Rights Watch said.

Women’s rights groups in Iraq have campaigned for years for legislation on domestic violence. The Iraqi constitution expressly prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family.” But only the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a law on domestic violence. Iraq’s Anti-Violence against Women Strategy (2013-2017), and the National Strategy on Advancement of Women in Iraq, adopted in 2014, call for legislation on domestic violence/violence against women.

Iraq has international human rights obligations to prevent and respond to these abuses. Several international treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which oversees the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) treaty, have called for states parties to pass violence against women legislation. Iraq ratified the treaty in 1986.

Some members of parliament have voiced concerns that the bill might be against Islamic principles. However, women’s rights organizations and some parliament members met in February 2017, with prominent clerics in Najaf, south of Baghdad, the capital, and found that they had no objections to the bill. Moreover, most Muslim-majority countries outside of the Middle East and North Africa region have adopted such legislation.

In recent years, several countries and autonomous regions in the Middle East and North Africa have also introduced some form of domestic violence legislation or regulation, including Algeria, Bahrain, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. These laws vary in the degree to which they comply with international standards. Several other countries, including Morocco and Tunisia, are considering draft legislation on domestic violence.

“Iraq should ensure that its legislation on domestic violence is in line with international standards, as a model for the region,” Begum said.