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Executive Conversation with Ms Yanar Mohammed

Ms Yanar Mohammed, civil society leader and women’s rights activist in her home country Iraq, joined the GCSP for an intimate gathering as part of the GCSP Executive Conversation series on 27 October 2015. Yanar came to the GCSP at the end of a speaking tour which included providing a statement to UN Security Council debate on Women, Peace and Security in New York and at the Human Rights Council here in Geneva. She shared the successes and challenges of the work undertaken by civil society organisations in Iraq for the benefit and well-being of women.


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In 2003, Yanar co-founded the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) which provides safe havens for victims of domestic abuse and those threatened by honour killings. She was insistent upon including ‘Freedom’ in the organisation’s name as she felt that a new kind of activism was needed to respond to “the end of the dictatorship, to symbolise the struggle against the new patriarchy” whether it be in suits or uniforms. One of the messages she emphasised was that the women of Iraq need to make use of the solidarity from international women’s organisations and to strengthen themselves from within Iraq.

One of Yanar’s current roles is providing safe spaces for women escaping from ISIS in Iraq. These women are frequently rejected by society and perceived to be dishonoured. OWFI responds to their need for shelter and protection. “Women cannot continuously be the battlefield; they must be the instruments of change”.

Asked about the conditions and security of the shelters, Yanar was hopeful noting “We are in a better place than in 2005. Then, with many women sheltered in a house, officials understood it as a brothel and raided us.”

The Iraqi Government has recognised the need for shelters but will not devolve power to local NGOs to administer them despite the 4 million displaced persons in the country. Yanar emphasised the need for small, below-the-radar shelters across the country run by people who understand the area and who can work within the tribal system to protect the women. Over the last 12 years OWFI has helped hundreds of women, some of whom have gone on to form their own shelters where residents are mentored and educated on human rights.

Yanar took the opportunity to share a 50-page report drafted this year by 5 Iraqi civil society organizations, and 3 international organizations. The report was discussed at the UN Human Rights Committee International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights session in Geneva in October 2015.

Entitled Seeking Accountability And Demanding Change: A Report On Women’s Rights Violations In Iraq, the detailed report outlines the wide-spread presence of gender-based violence in the country. As many men take up the call to arms, thousands of families now headed by women are left vulnerable. In the absence of male family members women cannot travel, find housing, obtain employment, access health care services, or enrol into education institutions. Although there are no laws specifically requiring the authorization of a male relative for the processing of identification papers, Yanar noted that she too had been subject to discriminatory practices implemented by bureaucrats.

When asked how many women could be expected to be displaced with the reclamation of ISIS held territory by Iraqis she responded, “How many young women would you have in a city that ISIS would want as wives? How many ISIS fighters in each city? How many fighters from abroad? How many women would have escaped? How many women didn’t?”. Yanar proposed the establishment of safe zones on the outskirts of reclaimed villages and cities, facilitated by the Government but run by non-governmental organisations and with a supervisory role for the international community.
Regarding the applicability of UNSCR 1325 on the work of OWFI and similar organisations within Iraq, Yanar affirmed that the content of UNSCR 1325 was good but the mechanism for achieving it would be a long-term undertaking. She noted the contradictory Iraqi government action of approving the National Action Plan for implementing UNSCR 1325 and the Ja’afari legislation within weeks of each other. Despite this, she remains hopeful that it will have a positive impact, referring to UNSCR 1325 she said, “With all the mess that we have now we have to cling to these instruments, to have hope”.

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