Renewed calls for legislation to protect victims could stand a chance under Kadhimi’s government
By Ban Barkawi
AMMAN, May 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fears of increased domestic violence during Iraq's coronavirus lockdown will spur the new government to push through long-stalled legislation to protect victims, the head of the cabinet's women's rights department said on Monday.
Campaigners and U.N. agencies have stepped up demands for the law to be passed following the highly publicised case of Malak Al-Zubaidi, who died from being set alight last month after an alleged attack by her husband. It is not clear if she was murdered, or if she set herself on fire.
"The spread of domestic violence has served as a warning to many people, including parliamentarians, about the necessity of passing a law," Ibtisam Ali, the cabinet official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said bringing the draft legislation back to parliament would be a priority for Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's new government, which was approved by lawmakers earlier this month.
"Enforcing the law would create societal awareness on the importance of combating violence against women. It would be a deterrent," she added.
One in five women has experienced physical violence in Iraq, according to a survey conducted by the health ministry in 2007. The criminal code outlaws violence within the family but there is no specific law on tackling domestic abuse.
The first draft of the stalled domestic violence bill was amended after being rejected in 2015 by conservative members of the previous parliament who said it infringed on Islamic values.
Lawyer and women's rights activist Marwa Abdulridha said fighting such opposition was vital.
"We want to create awareness about this bill, that it does not - as some Islamic parties say - violate religion or destroy families," she said, adding that violent attacks and murders of women by their husbands were "nothing new".
"Even before the coronavirus, we've always heard of cases like Malak's - it's constant," she said.
The draft legislation would give abused women and children more rights, require the state to build adequate shelters and establish specialized family violence courts. It does not stipulate penalties for the perpetrators.
Strong patriarchal values in Iraq have made it difficult for victims of domestic violence to take legal action against attackers, campaigners say.
"The law is weak in the face of tribal and religious customs and traditions," said Banin Khalil, an activist from the Iraqi city of Al-Qadisiyah.
Women in abusive households are often pressured by relatives to stay with their husbands to avoid social stigma, said another activist, Aula Salman.
Women in Iraq are reluctant to report violence but hotlines have been "convenient and successful", said U.N. Women in Iraq in emailed comments, adding that the organisation has been working alongside civil society groups to push for the law.
While there are no official figures proving an increase in domestic abuse during Iraq's two-month-old lockdown, the group said there was evidence of an increase in calls to hotlines.
The domestic violence bill stalled again last year when the previous government resigned, leaving legislation in limbo.
Ali said, however, she was hopeful the draft legislation would now make it to the statutes.
"We're working with our network in parliament including the women and child's committee and the human rights committee to ensure it doesn't get rejected," she said.
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(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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