A Long Way to Go: Influencing Social Norms to Combat Gender-Based Violence in Iraq

Diego Redondo Cripovich Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

There are many social, political, religious, tribal and economic reasons that contribute to defining gender roles throughout the ages, and yet there appears to be a common thread of gender inequality across different times and territories.

Iraq is no exception to this: with a long history of colonial rule, foreign intervention, successive conflicts and a volatile socio-economic context, there are pronounced gender disparities and social norms that perpetrate Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Recent data collected as part of the Oxfam-led Naseej project confirm how gender roles and social norms formulated in a society are tolerating and creating an impunity culture to GBV In Iraq.

As one participant from Anbar said, “the community encourages GBV, men feel they are the most powerful and see women as second-class citizens” (Qaim – Anbar, government employee, female, 53). This is further reinforced by a rooted belief that men and women do not have the same rights according to almost 70% of survey respondents in Diyala Governorate. Men respondents there stated that “there must be a difference between men and women in their rights and duties and the man is the only one to take leadership roles”.

At the same time reporting GBV incidents is a great challenge, as stigma, shame, fear of retaliation, and the weak rule of law among other factors, lead to a culture of silence and under-reporting.

“It is not possible to report cases of GBV as there are no rules, no punishment for the perpetrator and the survivor is forced to choose between reporting and saving her reputation”

(Qaim – Anbar, education supervisor, female, 43)

GBV is seen as a private issue that needs to be handled within the family. Respondents shared that reporting GBV cases would undermine the status of men in their community. Some male participants dismissed the role of women’s rights organizations (WROs) in providing services to GBV survivors expressing that “issues among married couples can be solved by buying a bunch of flowers, tolerance and negotiations” (Diyala, Sheikh, male, 50).

In the absence of trusted law enforcement and rule of law bodies and with the lack of trust in service providers, women are left to face severe consequences. For instance, two out of three of the survey respondents reported that “killing women” is acceptable in their communities “to wash the family’s reputation”. Other possible punishments for women who do not conform with traditional expectations include confinement and divorce. The same severity of punishment does not apply to men. As one participant stated,if a cis-gender, heterosexual man does something considered dishonorable “[…] his family will isolate him and not sit with him to eat” (Diyala, Moukhtar, male, 45).

Across all locations, survey respondents reported girls being over three times more likely to be married below 18 than boys. The main reasons for early marriage are to protect the girls’ honour, to prevent them from delinquency and being abused by other men and militias including ISIS.

Financial constraints are also a key factor of early marriage. Marrying girls underage is a form of GBV in itself and exposes them to further forms of violence. One interviewee stated “early marriage destroys the girls. I call this selling, not marriage” (Muqdadiyah -Diyala, humanitarian worker, female, 31). Even when many community members recognize that early marriage contributes to GBV, they still justify it as “being single is not an acceptable civil status.

Social norms also apply to control women’s bodies, dress code and behaviour. According to a traditional leader in Diyala “an honourable woman is the one who wears proper clothes, who does not mix with men, who does not go to the market, whose body and hair nobody sees and someone against whom people do not speak” (Diyala, Moukhtar, male, 45). Women are to a great extent reduced to their reputation; an object limited by the boundaries of so-called morals. Men and society appoint themselves as the guards of these oppressive social norms that they created. Severe punishments including “honour killing” is used as a tool to prevent and fix any “deviation” and reinforce strict patriarchal social norms. As explained by interviewees, “women consist of honour, and if there is no honour there is no life” (Fallujah – Anbar, humanitarian worker, male, 28).

“Honourable women will bring honourable babies into life. If a woman loses her honour, there is no point in continuing with her life as her children will be born dishonourable and she will be killed”

(Qaim – Anbar, education supervisor, male, 47)

This view is not shared by a young humanitarian worker from the same community who says, “Unlike for my community, for me,an honourable woman is someone who depends on herself, can take decisions and lives according to humanitarian principles” (Khanaqin -Diyala-, humanitarian worker, female, 30).

Supporting a transformative approach to social norms as a strategy to prevent and respond to GBV and to support women, girls, men and boys to reach their full potential is a cornerstone of the Naseej project.

Naseej: connecting voices and combating GBV

The implementation of our project, Naseej, is crucial due to the issues at hand. Firstly, documenting GBV in locations where there is limited data available, is essential because what is not named, simply does not exist. Secondly, this project will be implemented with a two-prong approach. WROs will be supported to improve services for GBV survivors as well as being encouraged to work with communities and the government to change both social and state norms which perpetuate GBV and impede women and girls from reaching out for support.

Most importantly, I believe the Naseej team understands what position we should occupy in this feminist struggle: leave the leading role for the actual Iraqi women and girls in target locations to decide what needs to be done and how.

Note on the methodology

This piece is based on data collected between July and September 2020 by conducting 774 Household Surveys, 8 Focus Group Discussions and 18 Key Informant Interviews in the Diyala and Anbar Governorates.

The team of enumerators and everyone involved in data collection received an extensive five days training on Gender-Based Violence, core feminist principles, confidentiality and Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse combining theory, role plays and pilot days. Enumerators were given the chance to provide feedback on the tools and reformulate questions as per their understanding of the local context and to foster their ownership of the process. Additionally, validation workshops were conducted after data collection to provide the team with an opportunity to elaborate on the overall experience and hear their views, concerns, recommendations and to further understand the nuances of the data collected.

The main objectives of this study were to establish a pre-snapshot of the Naseej project against its outcomes and the baseline values against the indicators at the output level, in addition, to further understand the overall situation on GBV and perceptions of local communities in order to issue recommendations to guide project implementation.


Diego Redondo Cripovich