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Saddam Hussein behind bars but Iraqi women still prisoners of fear

In the chaos of post-war Iraq women and girls are prisoners in their own homes, unable to go to work or school – let alone influence the future course of Iraq.

It was, of course, 'breaking news' around the world. In December US forces finally captured the 'Ace of Spades' – former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – hiding in a bunker under the floor of a mud hut outside his home town of Tikrit.

In an address from the White House President George W. Bush pledged that Hussein would face "the justice that he denied millions", while warning that the arrest would not end violence in the country, particularly against US troops.

There's another war going on in Iraq; one Bush neglected to mention and one that doesn't make 'news'.

In the chaos of Coalition-run Iraq, hundreds of women and girls across the country have been subjected to horrific rapes, abductions and trafficking – due to the failure of the occupation forces and the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to provide public security.

The result, according to a July report by the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), is a "palpable climate of fear" keeping women and schoolgirls prisoners in their own homes. "Women in Iraq are like birds in cages," said one woman in the southern city of Amara.

Criminal gangs stalk and abduct women and girls, trafficking them across the border and selling them for profit into forced marriages, prostitution and slave labour as domestics. Girls like 15-year-old Muna B. and her two sisters who were snatched from their Basra neighbourhood by four armed men and kept in a house alongside other kidnapped children, many of whom were beaten and raped. Muna was able to escape her captors and tell her story: not so her two sisters, who she fears have been sold into sexual slavery.

Other criminal gangs justify raping women for their supposed links to the deposed regime.

Fortynine-year-old Salma M. – rumoured to have connections with businessmen associated with Saddam Hussein's government – was abducted at gunpoint outside her Baghdad home in May as her daughter screamed in horror. Salma was raped and tortured by ten men before they released her. Fearing reprisals, she will not allow her teenage daughter to leave the house.

Many rapes have no motive in crime. Saba A., nine, was abducted in broad daylight from the front steps of her apartment, taken to an abandoned building and raped. Friends of the family told HRW that Saba, still bleeding from her injuries two days later, was turned away from hospitals and denied proper forensic examinations.

No one knows the exact scale of sexual violence occurring in Iraq today, due to a breakdown of policing and the widespread looting of court and hospital records after occupation troops entered the country. However, the perception of ordinary citizens is that of a sharp rise.

HRW identified 25 credible cases of sexual violence and abductions between 27 May and 20 June 2003. Hadil Jawad, a founder of the women's rights group Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), believes the number may be as many as 20 a day.

Compounding the indifference of authorities is the long-standing cultural stigma attached to rape. Women and girls who are raped may face shame, rejection by their families and physical violence – even murder in so-called 'honour killings' – by fathers, brothers and uncles.

One Iraqi police investigator told HRW: "It is much worse. There is no safety… too much crime, too many cases even to pursue [and] we have no authority to solve or investigate them."

US Colonel Guy Shields, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said he had no information about rapes and kidnappings. "The military is not keeping track of Iraqi criminal statistics," he admitted. As recently as September, a representative of the CPA's Ministry of the Interior told the New York Times: "We don't do women."

One result of not "doing women" is that school attendance for girls has been halved, according to Save the Children. "Many families are afraid to send their daughters to school because people will kidnap them," said Saad Hashem, a 38-year-old father of four daughters. He believes that "under Saddam, it was 100 per cent safe. We could come home at 1 or 2 a.m, the police were everywhere."

Iraqi women did enjoy greater formal freedoms after Hussein's secular Ba'ath party seized power in 1968, largely due to its perception that women's participation was essential for consolidating authority and achieving rapid economic growth. Reforms included women's right to vote, own property and attend school. Coupled with laws granting formal equality with men in civil sector employment and maternity benefits, these led to Iraq having the greatest concentration of working and professional women in the Middle East.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the position of women has rapidly declined. Women and girls were disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of UN sanctions, in terms of access to health care, food and education. Literacy rates for women plummeted from 75 per cent in 1987 to less than 25 per cent by 2000.

Conditions were worsened by Saddam Hussein's need to ensure jobs for men and appease religious and tribal groups. In 1990 a presidential degree exempted men from prosecution for honour killings, leading to a resurgence in the practice. By 2000 women's freedom to work outside the home, travel abroad and attend mixed schools were curtailed.

Women's groups worry about the increasing political domination of religious fundamentalists. Radical Islamic clerics have demanded that Iraqi women – even Christians – wear the veil. In the holy city of Najaf, 190 km south of Baghdad, the swearing in of a female judge was postponed indefinitely this May after a senior Islamic cleric passed a fatwa [religious edict] stipulating that judges must be "mature, sane and masculine".

Experts say what this disempowerment means is that women are prevented from participating in national debates determining the country's future at a critical moment in Iraqi history. OWFI's Yanar Mohammed told the New York Times: "We want to be able to talk about issues like separation of mosque and state, and the development of civil law based on equality between men and women, but women can't even leave their homes and discuss such things."

Noting that the few Iraqi women members of the Coalition-appointed Governing Council appear on TV swathed in veils, Mohammed recently warned on the OWFI website that they "send a loud and clear message to all women of Iraq… 'Stay under the veil … it is not time for liberties yet'."

Nazaneen Rashid, is a Kurdish women's rights activist, aid worker and author of Caged Birds: Iraqi Women in post-Saddam Iraq. Karen Dabrowska is a freelance journalist specialising in Middle Eastern affairs.

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