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In the middle of U.S.-Iran conflict, biggest threats to women in Iraq go forgotten

Iran’s recent, retaliatory missile strikes hit near a U.S. air base by Erbil, where Women for Women International’s Iraq program is headquartered. Another missile reportedly fell near a camp by Dohuk, another community where we serve women.

Since the killing of Iranian military leader Qassam Soleimani, the U.S.-led military coalition has diverted efforts combatting ISIS to concentrate on the conflict with Iran.  

As conflict stands at our doorstep, we remind the international community that in war, women bear the burden. Conflict is no great equalizer: It exacerbates pre-existing gender inequalities and imbalances.  

The spectrum of violence women face is wide as their own opportunities narrow. Unsafe conditions make it difficult for women and girls to pursue educational opportunities. As one Women for Women International participant said following the missile strikes, “Our present becomes a victim of the wars in the past. And we are afraid for our children’s future and education.” 

Another said, “Sadness and fear were controlling my home. My children were crying all through the night due to the loud sounds of the bombs.” 

Destabilized communities mean destabilized local economies and the loss of livelihoods for women as well as men. Stress and trauma seep into the home and are often taken out on women, who face abuse from family members and husbands.  

Sexual violence and rape are used as weapons of war and conflict. Women become targets for aggressors to “punish” or “humiliate” their communities. And the repercussions for women linger due to physical injury and social stigma, which can bring health risks along with rejection from their families.    

Extremist groups such as ISIS kidnap women and children, forcing them into sexual slavery. When we first opened our offices in Erbil in 2015, some of the women we served were Yezidi survivors of genocide and sex slavery at the hands of ISIS.  

The reemergence of ISIS has become a big worry for the Iraqi people and offers the biggest threat to women in the region, according to Aram Shakerm, Women for Women International’s Country Director in Iraq. “Displaced people cannot return home,” he said. “An unknown future is waiting.” 

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria late last year and escape of key ISIS captives played a role in the group’s reformation, and the most recent escalation of events in the U.S.-Iran conflict has emboldened the group.  

In response to the resurgence in terrorism and the international conflict, one program participant said, “ISIS wars still have a negative impact on our mental health, and psychologically we are not ready for another war.” 

Our doors are staying open. Women for Women International is committed to supporting women in Iraq, and we are constantly assessing the situation to ensure the safety of both the courageous women we serve and our dedicated staff.  

“We were worried that the attack would affect classes,” said Shakerm. “But everybody attended enthusiastically.”

Women for Women International – Iraq’s program supports women survivors of war, including Iraqi, Yezidi, Kurdish, refugee, and internally displaced women. 

Our Iraqi leaders and staff connect women to psycho-social support and emergency psychological services, and guide women through our program to rebuild their lives and invest in their families and communities to increase resources and opportunity. The networks women form bridge cultural divides and build trust between neighbors, families, and the many groups that make up the Middle East – closing the gaps ISIS capitalizes on to breed extremism.  

Women for Women International’s programs in Iraq will continue to operate, grow, and support women in the region as they build cohesive, peaceful communities where extremism cannot take hold. The resources, skills, knowledge, and most importantly, the connections women gain are more necessary than ever in this time of conflict.