Iraq is already experiencing a humanitarian emergency, characterized by high rates of child malnutrition and mortality. A war will further aggravate the already precarious condition of children, and force many people to flee their homes. During wartime, women and children are at particular risk of human rights abuses because of their lack of status in most societies. These abuses include sexual and gender-based violence, such as sexual exploitation, recruitment as child soldiers and family separation. Women and children are also disproportionately affected by the lack of basic services endemic to refugee settings -- such as adequate medical care, nutrition, sanitation, and shelter -- due to discrimination and their powerlessness. Civilians generally are at risk from landmines, unexploded ordnance and use as human shields.
Given the history of ethnic divide in Iraq, the pending war is also likely to unleash retribution and massive bloodshed among local factions, which will result in further abuses of civilians, including women and children. A humanitarian crisis will be exacerbated by the lack of capacity to initiate large-scale relief efforts in the region, as few organizations with expertise in relief and assistance are currently operational in Iraq and neighboring countries.
If the United States pursues military action, it is imperative it be ready to respond to the humanitarian and refugee crisis that will ensue. The Women's Commission urges the Bush administration to work closely with the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and relief agencies to systematically put in place structures to address an emergency. Current regulations prohibit U.S. nongovernmental organizations from doing essential contingency planning in Iraq and Iran. The Women's Commission recommends that the Administration lift these restrictions. In addition, the following measures, which reflect lessons learned from past crises, should be priorities in any humanitarian response:
- Ensure that the rights and needs of women and children are prioritized from the outset of the emergency, including access to comprehensive reproductive health care to prevent and manage maternal mortality, sexual violence and transmission of HIV/AIDS;
- Ensure an assessment of protection requirements for women, children and adolescents, considering the particular risks they face because of their sex or age. This means preventing and responding to abuses such as recruitment of child soldiers, sexual exploitation and violence, and trafficking of women and children.
- Ensure that women and children have equal and/or priority access to emergency food, medicine and shelter and that female staff are deployed by all operational agencies, both at the management and field levels;
- Engage local organizations, especially those run by women and youth, in the design and implementation of relief efforts and invest in building their infrastructure over the long term;
- Ensure that borders remain open and guarantee that Iraqi refugees have full access to asylum systems and resettlement programs in the United States and other countries; and
- Acknowledge that war in the region will necessitate a long-term and full-scale reconstruction effort led by the United States that should be used as an opportunity to advance the rights of women and children in the region.