Women In Iraq Are Suffering A "Silent Emergency"

Though security is improving in Iraq, conditions for women have worsened according to two new studies. Many Iraqi women, according to reports, are suffering from mental illness, lack of necessities, and a flourishing sex trade.

The first study, on mental health, reveals the effect violence has had on the Iraqi people. On Saturday, the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization released a survey of 4,332 adult Iraqis which found that 17 percent suffered from mental disorders, such as depression, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, according to The New York Times. Women were particularly affected, with 19 percent of women reporting mental health problems compared to 14 percent of men. A higher proportion of women suffering from severe depression, phobias, and anxiety - and 70 percent of men and women with mental health issues - reported contemplating suicide.

Another study, conducted by Oxfam and Al-Amal Association, an Iraqi women's organization, conducted interviews with 1,700 women and reports (unsurprisingly) that over the past two years their condition has worsened. The BBC reports that a third of the women surveyed had three hours or less of electricity per day, 25 percent had no daily access to drinking water, and 45 percent said their income was worse in 2008 than in previous years. Almost half said their access to health care had worsened in the past two years, 20 percent are victims of domestic violence, and more than 30 percent had family members die violently. As the Oxfam report puts it: "Iraqi women are suffering a silent emergency', trapped in a downward spiral of poverty, desperation and personal insecurity despite an overall decrease in violence in the country."

The survey also reports that there are an estimated 740,000 widows in Iraq, and three quarters do not receive pensions. These women have great difficulty providing for their children and extended family and are often beaten by family members. Women's rights campaigner Hana Adwar tells the BBC it's hard to convince the widows that they deserve better. "The majority feel that this is the will of God, they have to obey the right of their families," she said.

On Saturday, Time also reported that women's rights in Iraq have actually regressed since the fall of Saddam Hussein and sex trafficking is now rampant in the country. Women's rights advocates in the country estimate that tens of thousands of Iraqi women and children have been sold into sex slavery since 2003. Trafficking takes place within the country and internationally, mostly to Syria, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Women can easily be taken across the border with forged passports or by being forced to marry and then divorced and put to work when they reach their destination.

Even more disturbingly, it's often impoverished mothers who sell their daughters into slavery. Girls as young as 11 and 12 are sold for anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000. "The buying and selling of girls in Iraq, it's like the trade in cattle," says Hinda, an undercover human rights activist. "I've seen mothers haggle with agents over the price of their daughters."

According to the 2008 U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report, the Iraqi government is ignoring the problem. The report says the government "offers no protection services to victims of trafficking, reported no efforts to prevent trafficking in persons and does not acknowledge trafficking to be a problem in the country."

Iraqi Surveys Start to Unveil the Mental Scars of War, Especially Among Women [NY Times]
Iraqi Women "Lack Basic Services [BBC]
Iraq's Unspeakable Crime: Mothers Pimping Daughters [Time]