Amid Covid-19 surge, Iraq moves to tackle domestic violence

Covid-19 lockdown and financial issues have been blamed for rising domestic abuse in Iraq

Iraqi demonstrators wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
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Human rights defenders in Iraq have received a dose of hope that the country could eventually have an anti-domestic violence law amid an alarming increase of cases due to coronavirus-induced lockdown and economic woes.

The Iraqi parliament is set to debate two draft domestic violence bills in the coming weeks, one initiated by the President and another by cabinet.

There have been efforts by activists to adopt a law that criminalises domestic violence since 2003, with the first draft introduced in 2015. But the bill faced tough resistance from Islamist politicians who saw it as opposed to Islam.

In September, a new version of the Combatting Domestic Violence law was sent to parliament by President Barham Salih, but was shelved as the country was engulfed by anti-regime protests in October.

Domestic violence cases have increased by between 20 and 30 per cent since the beginning of this year in Iraq, compared with the same period last year, according to the Head of the Interior Ministry’s Community Police, Brig Gen Ghalib Al Attiyah.

Alarmed by the recent surge in domestic violence, the Iraqi Cabinet last week approved another version of the bill, bowing to pressure from local and international organisations.

Iraq’s constitution allows both the president and the Cabinet to propose bills to parliament and not necessarily to agree on one copy. It is then up to the Parliament which copy to consider.

“Both copies have positive provisions,” said Hanaa Edwar, a leading Iraqi women’s rights activist and a main advocate for the law. “Both need to be refined and unified in one legislation,” Ms Edwar said.

The bills, seen by The National, call for establishing a cross-ministerial committee including representatives from non-governmental organisations. The committee's main duty will be to set the general policies to combat domestic abuse and its decisions are binding to all parties.

Coronavirus in Iraq 

A new department linked to the interior ministry will be formed to monitor and investigate domestic violence incidents as well as a special court to deal with cases.

The new bills will allow the government and NGOs to establish and run shelters for domestic violence survivors and to offer financial aid. The bills also apply penalties – fines and terms in prison – for breaching protection orders.

Despite progress in introducing the new provisions, the bills still have some gaps that could undermine their effectiveness, said Ms Edwar.

For instance, the bills do not set out a definition of domestic violence that would help to prosecute offenders. They also prioritise reconciliation over protection and justice for victims, she said.

Domestic abuse in Iraq has increased significantly since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, due to the weakness of successive governments that has allowed customary law to prevail.

Men are not used to staying at home for a long time and that has brought stress

Before the bills were introduced, Iraqi law criminalised physical assault but didn’t specifically mention domestic violence. It gives the husband the right to “punish” his wife and parents to discipline their children “within limits prescribed by law or custom.”

The Iraqi Criminal Code only allows for mitigated sentences and imposes small fines even for murder for “honourable motives” or for sex outside of marriage.

To tackle that, Ms Edwar suggests passing the domestic violence law as a special one with its own penalties, not based on the penal code.

The recent surge in domestic violence is not confined to Iraq. As more countries impose second lockdowns to contain Covid-19 and go through economic hardship, more domestic abuse incidents have been reported, spurring the UN Women’s organisation to describe it as “shadow pandemic”.

"Psychological stress and economic hardships are the main reasons behind the recent increase in domestic violence," Brig Al Attiyah told The National.

“Men are not used to staying at home for a long time and that has brought stress especially as many of them have lost their income which they earn on a daily basis,” he added.

His department also registered suicide attempts and escape of adult girls from their homes. Even elderly people have been reporting domestic abuse, he said.

Parliament is expected to hold its first session after the Eid Al Adha break next week.

Once the government announced the approval of the draft law, critics started to decry the bill, saying it is against Islam and claiming that it threatens society by undermining family values.

In a statement issued on Sunday, Shiite politician Ammar Toma warned that some of the draft provisions “are destructive and target the stability of the Iraqi family and society”.

Mr Toma listed the rights for the wife and children to file complaints against the father, safe shelters and interference by “foreigners” to report domestic violence incidents and settle family disputes among the main “grave perils”.

Despite the early campaign by critics, Ms Edwar is optimistic.

“The situation is different now,” she said. “Domestic violence crimes have become clearer to the society and the whole world that forced many critics even some Islamist parties to change their mind."