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Iraq: Human Rights Watch Says Fear Of Assault Keeping Women Indoors

Human Rights Watch reports that the poor security situation in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is causing women and girls to severely restrict their movements for fear of rape and abduction. The group recently interviewed some 70 victims of what appears to be an upswing in sexual attacks and kidnappings due to the collapse of the Saddam Hussein-era security forces and their slow reformation under the U.S.-led coalition.

Prague, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The stories that appear in a new Human Rights Watch report on rape and sexual assaults in postwar Baghdad are so disturbing that some correspondents have tried to interview the victims themselves to learn more.

That is not easy, as "The New York Times" recently described. When reporter Neela Banerjee met with 9-year-old Sanariya, she found what appeared to be a normal little girl living in a family to which nothing had happened at all.

Banerjee described Sanariya this way: "In her loose black dress, gold hair band and purple flip-flops, Sanariya hops from seat to seat in her living room like any lively 9-year-old. She likes to read. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up and she says Michael, her white teddy bear, will be her assistant."

It was only in fragments that the horror of Sanariya's real situation emerged. In the privacy of a hallway, the little girl whispered to Banerjee that she can't sleep because of nightmares. In those nightmares, she said, she is attacked by what she called gangsters trying to kill her.

Her 28-year-old sister told the reporter that, still worse, Sanariya is blamed by her father and brothers for being raped -- something they feel has forever shamed their family. Her father reportedly beats the little girl almost daily with a bamboo slat because somehow she did not prevent an attack that even adults couldn't stop.

Sanariya was abducted by an unknown man while she was sitting on the stairs of her building in broad daylight. He dragged her into the abandoned building next door and shot at neighbors who tried to help her. Only when she screamed as he raped her did he finally flee.

Sanariya's story is just one of some 70 cases that Human Rights Watch recently documented in what the organization says appears to be an upswing in violent attacks against women and girls in postwar Iraq. The stories are commonplace enough that they have caused widespread fear in Baghdad and other cities and have scared many women and girls off the streets. When they do go out today, it is usually only when necessary and when they are accompanied by male relatives.

Hania Mufti, the Human Rights Watch representative in Baghdad, says it is impossible to document how much sexual crime has increased due to the collapse of the Hussein-era security forces and the slow reorganization of the police force under the U.S.-led coalition. One reason is the absence of crime records from the prewar period. Even so, she says, there is "a widespread perception that these kinds of crimes have risen in number and that in itself...perception sometimes is as potent a force as reality. And the fear of such attacks and the fact that one hears about these attacks quite frequently is one of the factors that we say drives, or has driven, women indoors."

Mufti says the Hussein government never published data on sexual crimes and what police records on them did exist appear to have been destroyed in the looting after the war. But she says several police officers told Human Rights Watch investigators that they are learning of several cases a week today compared with, previously, one or two every three months.

The human rights group found that victims of attacks range in age from young children to middle-aged women. Often, the victims are abducted on the street by armed men who force them into cars and then hold them prisoner in a house.

Mufti says one 15-year-old girl the NGO spoke with escaped from a home where a group of children was being held, apparently for sale to sex traffickers.

"She said that she and her two other sisters were taken to a house where there were other young girls, and I think several boys as well, who were being held by a group of people that she didn't know. And while they were kept there, she said that her sister was raped and that there were some sort of financial transactions or bargaining going on -- you know, bargaining for the prices of the various children."

The human rights investigators learned about the rape cases mostly through local women's groups which, in turn, learned about them through concerned female relatives of the victims. The victims themselves rarely report the crimes either to their family heads or to the police. That is because of the strong taboos against rape in a society where incidents are seen either as a sign that a family's men are too weak to protect their women or that the women are immoral. Both perceptions can mean that the known rape of one girl in a family can assure that no one will marry her sister.

Mufti says the police, too, frequently regard cases of rape as the result of immoral behavior.

"[The victims] do say they are afraid to report this because then it becomes a problem within the family. And then they face similar attitudes at the police station when they go there. In a couple of cases that we looked at, one police officer replied that the woman in question may have been a prostitute. In another case of a young girl who was abducted, she was referred to as 'the girl who ran away from home.'"

Mufti says, "Given that attitude, those types of crimes then are given very much a lower priority compared to other crimes that are happening in Baghdad, like theft and carjackings and so on."

That attitude persists despite the fact that the Iraqi legal code sets harsh penalties for abduction and rape, including considering them capital offenses should they lead to the death of the victim.

In its report, Human Rights Watch recommends that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) hire female, as well as male, officers as it reforms the Iraqi police force. Previously, the police force has been entirely male.

The group also recommends that the CPA set up sex crime units at major police stations to specifically investigate rape claims and apprehend perpetrators. In the 70 cases the rights workers looked at, only two assailants were ever brought to justice.

The executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, Hanny Megally, says "the insecurity plaguing Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has a distinct and debilitating impact on the daily lives of women and girls." He also says that today "many [women] are not going to schools or jobs or looking for work. If Iraqi women are to participate in postwar society, their physical security needs to be an urgent priority."

The U.S. daily "Wall Street Journal" reports today that "the inadequate security hurts the economy by making some workers fearful." The newspaper says the government-run State Company for Hand-Woven Carpets, which makes oriental rugs, is not operating even though its machinery is intact. The company's technical director told the paper that the mostly female employees consider the streets unsafe and refuse to come to work unless escorted by U.S. troops.

The "Wall Street Journal" also reports that since the Hussein regime collapsed in early April, the CPA has put 32,000 Iraqi police back to work. Reorganizing the police force, which dispersed during the war, has been slowed by efforts to ensure that former Ba'ath Party members are excluded.