Reports of sexual violence, abductions, and other violent crime have contributed to the widespread perception that women and girls in Baghdad are not safe outside their homes. Human Rights Watch interviews with women, girls, and their families confirmed the impact these fears have on people’s everyday lives and illustrate the inadequacies of laws, policies, and mechanisms in place to meet the specific needs of women and girls.
Abduction of women and girls from the streets is a phenomenon Iraqis cite as new: “This never happened before the war” was an oft-repeated refrain. Throughout the city, Iraqis talk of women and girls being seized from public locations, particularly while walking down the street, even in broad daylight. Out of the thirty or so women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed in Baghdad, virtually every one cited fear of abduction and sexual violence as justification for not returning to or looking for work, holding children back from school, and in many cases, preventing young women and girls from leaving the house. In late May, women and girls were rarely seen outside in Baghdad, even during daylight hours when male shoppers and workers crowded the sidewalks and streets. Although by the end of June women formed more of a public presence, they continued to tell Human Rights Watch that they limited their movements and remained afraid. Because of the real or perceived prevalence of such attacks, women and girls clearly believe they are more vulnerable than they were before the war.
Insecurity affects women’s and girls’ access to health in complex ways. Women and girls may have greater difficulties gaining access to routine and preventive health care, including reproductive health care when they are dependent on male family members to escort them to hospitals and medical clinics.29 For victims of sexual violence, informing a male family member about an attack may expose them to additional violence as punishment for their “transgression.” Women and girls who do seek health care may find that female staff at hospitals and clinics are also staying home, leaving them to choose between foregoing treatment or accepting treatment from a male doctor who may lack appropriate expertise or sensitivity.
Delays in or denial of medical treatment to victims of sexual violence are especially troubling because they deprive women and girls of access to medications to treat sexually transmitted diseases that untreated can result in infertility. Victims who do not receive treatment at the time of an attack may be more reluctant to seek it later.
Hospital personnel, including at the maternity hospital, told Human Rights Watch that they do treat victims of rape who require medical intervention. However, Human Rights Watch documented several cases where women and girls who sought treatment for sexual violence at hospitals in Baghdad were turned away. In some cases hospital staff told victims that they could not be treated because the victims also wanted forensic examinations, which the staff claimed fell outside their competencies.30 Victims who sought treatment at the forensic institute were also routinely turned away on the grounds that that institute only conducts diagnostic examinations and does not provide treatment for injuries or post-exposure prophylaxis for sexually transmitted diseases.
Saba A., the nine-year-old rape victim, was turned away from hospitals and the forensic institute. A friend of the family described the difficulties he faced obtaining treatment for the child, who was still bleeding days after being raped.
A CNN journalist was interviewing the forensic institute’s director when Saba A. was taken there. Furious that the hospital refused to treat the child, she tried to help Saba A. get medical assistance. After two days, the journalist found a sympathetic doctor with the U.S. military unit stationed nearby and was able to arrange for a unit pediatrician to examine and treat the child.32
U.S. military police officers tried for two days to organize medical attention for Muna B., the fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted in early May. Even with this assistance, three different hospitals refused to examine Muna B. because she also wanted a forensic examination to document her assertion that she had not been raped in order to protect herself from possible retaliation by her family. She had not been medically examined at the time Human Rights Watch saw her, five days after her escape.33
In another case, a U.S. soldier who had been on duty at a checkpoint outside the Saint Rafael hospital told Human Rights Watch that two adults brought a nine-year-old girl to the hospital the evening of June 2, 2003, but that the hospital would not treat the child. “I stopped the vehicle, and they said that they were going to the hospital. I noticed that they went in, and several minutes later they came out, the man was pissed off, he was yelling at them. He spoke some English, and he said that the child was nine years old and had been raped, he asked me where another hospital was and I pointed in the general direction, to the right.”34
The current fear of sexual violence and abduction also has disproportionately affected women’s and girls’ school attendance. In mid-May, Save the Children U.K. conducted an assessment of three schools in the Baghdad area finding attendance in the schools they surveyed less than 50 percent; the survey found that lack of security and fear of kidnapping topped the reasons for girls’ nonattendance.35 School attendance had increased by the first week of June to approximately 75 percent as families arranged for their daughters to travel to and from school in groups, and as more male relatives began escorting female students to school. Still, such solutions often left women and girls dependent on the availability and willingness of others to be able to go to school.
Lina J. attended evening classes until early May, when Fatima M., a young woman she knows was rumored to have been attacked while driving in Baghdad. Although Lina J. does not know the details of what happened to the girl, the fear that she too will be attacked has driven her inside.
Fatima M. disappearance profoundly affected girls in the neighborhood. A teacher at her school told Human Rights Watch that before the war her class, all girls, had thirty-two students. As of June 3, there were six regularly attending.37
Many young women, girls, and their relatives told Human Rights Watch that if women and girls left the house at all, it was only to go to school. Mohammad Walid Shakr explained that even before he witnessed a girl being abducted, the rumors of abductions had led his family to be protective of its female members. “My sister, she is twenty-two and in college. She goes to classes, but not out with her friends. We don’t let her go out, it’s not safe.”38
Human Rights Watch met Wa’il Mustafa Ali Farraj outside a school in Ghazaliya neighborhood, where he was waiting for his sister to get out of classes.
Hana Rashid, age forty-three, told Human Rights Watch that since the war she had escorted her two daughters to school because as a divorced single parent she had no other solution.
28 Human Rights Watch interview with Dalal S.’s mother, Baghdad, June 20, 2003.
29 For example, the World Health Organization noticed an increase in reports of malnutrition the latter half of May; one hypothesis they are currently exploring is that such cases were only reported when mothers felt safe to leave their houses to take children to hospital.Human Rights Watch interview with Julia Stucky, World Health Organization, June 7, 2003.
30 See section “Barriers to Obtaining Forensic Medical Examinations” for a discussion of the barriers to obtaining a forensic examination to document sexual violence.
31 Human Rights Watch interview, (name withheld to protect the child’s identity), Baghdad, June 10, 2003.
32 Human Rights Watch interview with Hamsa Muhammad, Baghdad, June 1, 2003. The director of the morgue confirmed that he had turned away a “five or six” year-old child from medical treatment and that a journalist had been advocating on the child’s behalf. Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Faek Amin Bakr, Baghdad, June 1, 2003.
33 The specific medical facilities included the Italian Red Cross hospital, and the New Baghdad teaching hospital. Human Rights Watch also knows that she was turned away from al-Kindi hospital. Human Rights Watch interview with staff sergeant Josh Nieratko, Baghdad, June 11, 2003 and physician’s assistant Zahed Khaled Malek, al-Kindi hospital Baghdad, June 10, 2003.
Muna B. told a U.S. civil affairs officer that she herself had not been raped; she told a physician’s assistant at one hospital that she wanted the forensic examination “for her family;” as she feared that her family might kill her because of the abduction, it is likely that she wanted the exam to prove she was still a virgin. Human Rights Watch interview with Muna B., age fifteen, Baghdad, June 13, 2003.
34 Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. army soldier who wished to remain anonymous, Baghdad, June 4, 2003.
35 “Assessment in three schools,” Save the Children, Baghdad, May 18, 2003.
36 Human Rights Watch interview with Lina J., Baghdad, June 1, 2003.
37 Human Rights Watch interview with a teacher at Fatima M.’s school (name withheld), Baghdad, June 3, 2003.
38 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhannad Walid Shakr, age twenty-one, Baghdad, June 11, 2003.
39 Human Rights Watch interview with Wait Mustafa Ali Farrag, Baghdad, June 7, 2003.
40 Human Rights Watch interview with Hana Rashid, age forty-three, Baghdad, June 11, 2003.