Fearing for the safety of her four children in battles between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants, Umm Rayyad left everything she once owned and last month fled her hometown of Khurbardan, in northern Iraq.
The start of a military campaign to retake Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul has seen the Iraqi army pushing westward towards the Tigris River. The northern city has been controlled by IS since June 2014. Clashes between the two sides have caused a fresh wave of displacement with 2,000 civilians forced from their home since the latest escalation in violence on March 24.
“We left everything behind, we have nothing. IS took everything,” said Umm Rayyad, who declined to give her real name for fear of reprisals, like the other displaced women the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to.
Now safe following her arduous journey, Rayyad pointed to mattresses piled in the corner of a building in the town of Makhmour, in northern Iraq, where the newly displaced were being temporarily housed before being moved to a nearby camp.
“I have only two mattresses for me and my four children,” she lamented as men and women trudged up and down the building’s twisted staircase, lugging UN boxes packed with hygiene kits and food. “We haven’t washed in a week. This place is too small for so many people,” she said.
In addition to nearly one million Iraqis displaced since 2006/2007, there are more than 3.3 million people in Iraq who have been displaced since January 2014, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said last month.
In 2015, more than half of Iraq’s displaced were women, most of them aged between 25 and 59, the United Nations said. Lone women, whose husbands or fathers have been killed or gone missing, are especially vulnerable with forced marriages, destitution and violence a reality for many struggling to survive without a male figurehead in the family.
“These types of issues are increasingly apparent,” said Unicef spokesman in Iraq, Jeffrey Bates. “They’re displaced from their community and don’t have the social networks to protect them.” The lack of segregated living spaces in a society where men and women are customarily separated presents a problem for displaced people, particularly in camps where two or more families are forced to share the same latrine and shower.
“Women can’t go [to the toilet] after dark and if they go during the day they have to have someone watching,” Rezhna Mohammad, director of psychological services for local charity Seed, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “In some camps their movement is very restricted [because] they’re at greater risk of harassment and rape,” she added.
This in turn fuels a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and anger that often leads to families breaking up because of the strain this puts on them, Mohammad said. Women are further isolated when this happens. The stigmatisation of raped and sexually abused women means that survivors are reluctant to seek assistance or openly discuss their experience, and prefer to suffer in silence, aid workers say.
One of the war’s most alarming consequences for young women and girls is the rise in forced marriages. Girls as young as 12 have been forced to marry by their families in order to secure a male “protector” and at the same time, lessen their family’s financial burden.
Widowed women, who rarely remarry in Iraq, and women separated from their husbands are also at high risk of sexual exploitation and violence as they are the sole breadwinners and desperate for money to feedtheir family.
Sara Omar, 26, witnessed her husband being taken away by Kurdish security officers on suspicion of having ties to Islamic State. Sitting on a mattress in a room full of other displaced women, Omar and her mother Shadi Younes discuss their journey to safety amidst shooting and shelling. “The sky was full of fire,” said 40-year-old Younes recalling the violence of the battle.
Omar and her two children will be relocated soon to a camp for internally displaced people where she faces the daunting task of settling into a new environment as a married woman without a husband. Other women have seen themselves forced to start anew with one or more children lost to war – a load too heavy for many mothers to bear.
“Most of them never talk about their problems with anyone in the family, not even their mothers or sisters,” said Mohammad from the organisation, Seeds. The UN estimates that another million civilians are likely to become displaced in the battle for Mosul, most of them likely to be women and their children.
But in a society where trauma is seldom discussed and often internalised, aid groups such as Seeds have taken on the immense challenge of opening the door to uneasy discussions on taboo issues such as sexual violence. “Some women come [to us] every single week, you get to know them and build trust with them,” Mohammad said. “Then you can approach them about [their trauma].”
by Sofia Barbarani