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A woman speaks to a U.S. soldier in Baghdad, Iraq, June 26, 2007. (U.S. Army photo)

A woman speaks to a U.S. soldier in Baghdad, Iraq, June 26, 2007. (U.S. Army photo)

What Sanctions, War, Occupation Brought to Iraqi Women: Collapse of Rights

New poll and reporting by Reuters put spotlight on deteriorating situation for women in country 'once at the vanguard of women's rights in the region'

Andrea Germanos

Reuters is putting a spotlight on what many rights groups and independent media have been saying for years—the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought systematic destruction to the rights of women and girls in the country.

Thomson Reuters Foundation's third annual poll on women's rights in the Arab world released Tuesday puts Iraq nearly dead last—21 out of 22 Arab states—for women's rights. The rank is based on a survey of 336 gender experts scoring how the countries fared based on their adherence to provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The poll looked at six categories: reproductive rights, violence against women, women in politics, women in the economy, women in society and women in the family.

Now, according to Reuters, Iraq is more dangerous for women than it was under Saddam Hussein's regime. "Although few miss Saddam's iron-fisted rule or the wars and sanctions he brought upon Iraq, women have been disproportionately affected by the violence that has blighted the lives of almost all Iraqis."

Yet the country was "once at the vanguard of women's rights in the region," as Reuters reports.

As independent journalist Rania Khalek explained earlier this year:

Contrary to popular imagination, Iraqi women enjoyed far more freedom under Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist government than women in other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, equal rights for women were enshrined in Iraq’s Constitution in 1970, including the right to vote, run for political office, access education and own property. Today, these rights are all but absent under the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Prior to the devastating economic sanctions of the 1990s, Iraq’s education system was top notch and female literacy rates were the highest in the region, reaching 87 percent in 1985. Education was a major priority for Saddam Hussein’s regime, so much so that in 1982 Iraq received the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) award for eradicating illiteracy. But the education system crumbled from financial decay under the weight of the sanctions pushing over 20 percent of Iraqi children out of school by 2000 and reversing decades of literacy gains. Today, a quarter of Iraqi women are illiterate, more than double the rate for Iraqi men (11 percent). Female illiteracy in rural areas alone is as high as 50 percent.

Women were integral to Iraq’s economy and held high positions in both the private and public sectors, thanks in large part to labor and employment laws that guaranteed equal pay, six months fully paid maternity leave and protection from sexual harassment. In fact, it can be argued that some of the conditions enjoyed by working women in Iraq before the war rivaled those of working women in the United States.

Years of devastating sanctions followed by war, occupation and the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki brought devastating effects to women in Iraq.

In "Iraqi women lament costs of U.S. invasion," part of Reuters' special coverage with the poll,they report that since the U.S. invasion, 

Domestic abuse and prostitution have increased, illiteracy has soared and thousands of women have been left widowed and vulnerable. Many women also rue the political leaders that came to power after Saddam was overthrown and the growing social conservatism that has diminished their role in public life.

"If you talk to women in war zones anywhere, they’ll tell you that domestic violence increases in war-time," Yifat Susskind and Yanar Mohammed wrote at Common Dreams in March. "But in Iraq, violence against women has also been systematic. And unknown to most Americans, it has been orchestrated by some of the very forces that the US boosted to power."

In 2011, writing "Occupation of Iraq destroys women’s lives," Serene Assir observed:

It is deeply telling that Iraqi society is becoming forcibly Islamized by militias tied to the Iraqi puppet government, which is dependent upon the United States for its survival. Meanwhile, Washington claims to be fighting a war on Islamic terrorism. The reality, as is frequently the case, is the precise opposite. Previously a secular state, Iraqi society is becoming forcibly transformed into a theocracy. In such systems, women and girls inevitably lose.

Two years later, and Iraqi women tell Reuters that women and girls are still losing.

Baghdad resident and mother of two Sana Majeed told Reuters that in the wake of the 2003 invasion, "Islamist parties started to control Iraq and that was the worst nightmare Iraqi women have ever faced. Religious parties and militia have stolen free life from Iraqi women."

"Women in Iraq must not quit trying to reclaim their freedom," Majeed told the news agency. "I think we should keep our voice loud, if not for ourselves, for the sake of our daughters."

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