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"Terrible things happened to me": Violence against Iraqi women and girls

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The Women's Commission is undertaking a field mission to Jordan from June 5 to June 23 to meet with Iraqi refugee women and youth to collect case studies and document experiences relating to reproductive health to increase international attention to this crisis, particularly the needs of women and youth. Please watch this space for field diary updates on the mission from Sarah Chynoweth, Mary Jane Escobar-Collins and Megan McKenna, as space allows.

Amman, JORDAN, 19 June 2007-An Iraqi man followed us yesterday, desperate to tell his family's story.

The Women's Commission has been in Amman, Jordan for two weeks to talk to refugee women and youth from Iraq. Over four million Iraqis have fled their homes because of brutal violence that is ravaging Iraq. This warfare has taken an incredible toll on the health of the Iraqi people, and women and girls are being particularly and systematically targeted for violence.

Yesterday we visited a charity hospital that provides discounted services to refugees in Jordan. After we left the hospital-the tour lasted about five hours-we jumped in a cab and drove back to our hotel, a good 20-minute ride. Before we could enter the hotel, a 30-something-year-old man with a young boy rushed up to us and begged our translator to talk to us. He had overheard us speaking to hospital officials about our work; too scared to approach us at the hospital and risk attracting attention, he waited all afternoon until we left, then followed us home.

His first words were "This is the happiest day of my life because I am able to talk to you," and pleaded with us to listen to his story. An engineer by training, he had worked as a security guard at a prominent international humanitarian organization in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Targeted by insurgents for "supporting the American occupation" by working at this agency, he was kidnapped and tortured for 14 days. His right hand is useless since his captors sliced through tendons in his wrist; he has suffered severe injuries to his legs and back. After his family paid $10,000 ransom, he was released-but he continued working for the organization because he needed the money. A few months later, his 24-year-old wife and six-year-old daughter were kidnapped for 19 days. He asked if we could come and talk to his wife-he said it would help her very much to talk.

The following day we visited his home in East Amman, a poor area where most Iraqi refugees live. His wife, Jamila*, and two smiling children greeted us warmly. Jamila agreed to an interview. She told us that she was nine months pregnant when she and her daughter were kidnapped and held hostage for almost three weeks because of her husband's work. She said, "Terrible things happened to me": She was raped by her captors and subsequently lost the baby, one week before her delivery date. We had never heard an Iraqi woman say directly that she was raped-it is a source of incredible shame and trauma. Tears welled in her and her husband's eyes-the pain and suffering were palpable-and her husband said, with clenched fists and a despairing look in his eye, "Sometimes I just think that I cannot do this anymore and that I should pour gasoline over my family and burn us all to spare us from this shame and suffering."

Appallingly, Jamila's heart-wrenching story is not unusual. Women and girls in Iraq are increasingly being targeted for violence as a means to traumatize and demoralize the population as a whole. Women whose husbands or brothers are suspected "insurgents" are often taken when the husband can't be found and detained and raped. Sometimes they are raped in front of their husbands or in front of men from their neighborhood. With the rampant insecurity and breakdown in rule of law and overall social fabric, trafficking of women and girls out of Iraq-almost unheard of before the occupation-has increased. Desperate women and girls are turning to sex work to support themselves and their families-a "death sentence," so we hear, and some are even forced into prostitution under the guise of so-called "temporary marriages." And domestic violence in both Iraq and among Iraqi refugees has skyrocketed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Iraqi women in Jordan who have been raped do not have access to emergency contraception to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or medicine to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission-the standard care for rape survivors. Although services for pregnant women are free-including those who need an emergency C-section-this care is available only to those with a marriage license. Unmarried pregnant women and girls sometimes resort to unsafe abortion-or pay great sums to a doctor to perform one illegally. Family planning, including contraception, is not provided by the humanitarian community and, although generally available over the counter, some women try to get it smuggled in from Iraq.

We know that women and girls in war are among the most vulnerable groups in the world. We know that they are targeted for sexual violence, abuse and exploitation. We, the international community, must address this terrible scourge now-the Jamilas of the world cannot wait.

* not her real name