An Iraqi Kurdish woman demonstrates in front of the Kurdistan Judicial Council offices in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on May 29, 2014 denouncing the murder of 15-year-old Dunia Selman (portrait) by her 45-year-old husband the past week.

Iraq: Kurdistan Region’s authorities failing survivors of domestic violence

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KR-I) authorities are failing to ensure that perpetrators of domestic violence, including harrowing cases of murder, rape, beatings and burning, are held to account, and they are imposing arbitrary restrictions on the freedoms of survivors who seek protection in the shelter system, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

Despite some positive legislative steps taken in the KR-I to combat domestic violence, the report, “Daunting and Dire: Impunity, underfunded institutions undermine protection of women and girls from domestic violence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq”, exposes how in practice survivors face significant obstacles in accessing protection and justice in KR-I. It finds a lack of political will on the part of the authorities to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence or to offer meaningful support to women and girls who turn to the state for protection.

“Survivors of domestic violence in the KR-I are being failed at every turn. From the moment they escape abusive situations, these women and girls repeatedly encounter daunting obstacles in seeking protection and justice that leave them at risk and allow perpetrators to go unpunished. Meanwhile survivors seeking refuge in shelters face prison-like conditions which in some cases compel women and girls to return to situations of horrendous abuse,” said Aya Majzoub, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The Kurdistan Region has enacted a progressive law on domestic violence that is unmatched in Iraq, yet Amnesty International’s research has found that at present this is little more than ink on paper. This report is a call to the authorities to urgently end impunity for domestic violence, including by ensuring that investigations into domestic violence are effective and survivor-centred. The authorities must eliminate mandatory reconciliation processes as prerequisites for criminal proceedings. Further, the KRG must increase funding to the institutions that support survivors of domestic violence, remove requirements for a court order and formal criminal complaint to access shelters, and improve living conditions in the shelters.”

The report is based on interviews with 57 individuals, including 15 women survivors of domestic violence as well as directors and staff at the Directorate for Combating Violence Against Women and the Family (DCVAW) and women’s shelters, NGO workers, lawyers and government officials including the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs of the KRG during two research trips in March and September 2023 to the governorates of Erbil, Sulaimaniya and the administrative area of Garmiyan. An Amnesty International researcher also visited three out of the four state-run shelters for survivors of gender-based violence.

While no comprehensive statistics on gender-based violence are available, government officials have reported at least 30 women were killed in 2023 and 44 in 2022. NGO workers told Amnesty International that the real numbers are likely much higher. In 2022, the DCVAW received 15,896 complaints of domestic violence, but figures for 2023 were not available to Amnesty International.

Justice system perpetuating impunity

The report exposes the numerous obstacles survivors of domestic violence face in accessing justice. One key hurdle is that survivors must themselves file a criminal complaint against their abuser for the prosecution to investigate domestic violence incidents and to access protection services, including shelters, and many women fear reprisals or threats if they do so. One protection worker explained: “In our society… It [filing a criminal complaint] erases all your bruises and your wounds and leaves you as the attacker.”

Lengthy court proceedings, wide discretionary powers for judges who show bias towards abusers and prioritize protection of the “family unity” over protection of women, as well as humiliation during court proceedings disincentivise women from seeking justice and lead many to drop charges and re-enter abusive situations. The only safeguard that the courts require when survivors drop charges is that the abuser – or survivor’s family who may be the ones threatening the survivor – sign a “pledge of no harm” – a discretionary measure requested by judges that is not legally binding. Social workers told Amnesty International that there have been numerous cases where women and girls have been killed after such pledges were signed. In one documented case, the bodies of two sisters, aged 17 and 19, were found in September 2020, about a month after they had left a shelter. The father had signed such a pledge after the girls were convinced by family members to drop the charges against him.

Survivors of domestic violence in the KR-I are being failed at every turn. From the moment they escape abusive situations, these women and girls repeatedly encounter daunting obstacles in seeking protection and justice that leave them at risk, allow perpetrators to go unpunished.

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International

The director of one shelter described to Amnesty International another case of a teenage girl whose “brother had cut off both her ears and shaved off all her hair…apparently because she was using social media.” The director said the judge told the shelter they should encourage the girl’s family to take her back. Her brother was never arrested.

Survivors and social workers also described to Amnesty International how gender stereotypes and a victim-blaming culture mean women are reluctant to go to court and risk being humiliated.

A caseworker described to Amnesty International how one judge told a woman who became pregnant after she was raped by her brother: “If you were such a well-behaved girl this wouldn’t have happened to you.” Her family then convinced her to drop the charges.

In some cases, shelter directors explained, judges appeared to show leniency towards married men who committed crimes against family members other than their spouse or children in order to preserve their family’s unity. The director of a shelter described how in the case of a 16-year-old girl raped by her 26-year-old cousin, the judge changed the charge from rape of a minor, which carries a 15-year prison sentence, to the charge of adultery because “the man was married” and “had a family to look after”.  “They are teaching men how to get away with rape and murder,” the shelter director said.

Shortfalls in law on domestic violence 

Amnesty International found that the KR-I’s 2011 Domestic Violence Law prioritizes protection of ‘family unity’ over justice and the protection of survivors, and it lays out penalties for offenders that are not commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed. 

Most tellingly, the Law mandates a reconciliation process between the survivor and her abuser before a judge decides whether to refer the case for trial. Such mandatory reconciliation processes are at odds with a survivor-centred approach to domestic and gender-based violence.  

Under the Law, acts of domestic violence (including bodily injury and marital rape) are considered misdemeanours and therefore can only incur a maximum penalty of three years in prison. While the law does grant judges the discretion to make use of harsher penalties stipulated in the Penal Code, Amnesty International found that the lack of clear directives in a context of entrenched gender-based stereotypes means that judges rarely impose penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime committed. One lawyer said:

“[I recall] the case of a woman who was beaten severely by her husband and she brought charges three times and each time the judge would fine the husband something nominal. She ended up going to court three times, each time bearing the same bruises”.

Impunity for “honour killings” also remains widespread despite a 2002 amendment to the penal code to remove “honour” as a mitigating circumstance in cases of murder or other serious crimes against women.

Underfunded and inadequate protection mechanisms

Amnesty International also found that the protection and reporting mechanisms set up by the state are woefully underfunded and under-resourced, seriously impairing institutions’ ability to support women and girls who are subjected to domestic violence. These institutions include the DCVAW and shelters run by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MLSA). A frustration that was echoed by officials at these two institutions was that there lacks sufficient belief or commitment to combatting violence against women by those in charge of purse strings.

The three shelters Amnesty International visited were in disrepair, overcrowded, understaffed and not adequately equipped for survivors’ needs.Women and girls require a court order to enter and leave the shelters, which can only be granted if they file a criminal complaint against their abuser. This requirement in effect excludes survivors who choose not to file complaints, including for fear of reprisals.

Once in the shelters, the women and girls’ freedom of movement and access to phones and the internet are severely restricted. Amnesty International has found that these restrictions on freedom of movement and communication are disproportionate and amount to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

One DCVAW investigator lamented this:

“The lives of women and girls who enter shelters essentially come to a stop…I look at women who turn up with wounds, bruised eyes and know that even if I do everything, after she leaves this office, 90% of the time she will be back to what sent her here in the first place.”

“Front line workers are exhausted. The KRG must ensure its promises of zero tolerance for violence against women are translated into concrete action by stepping up support for these institutions and making key legal reforms to remove barriers to justice and undertaking public education and awareness against gender-based discrimination and violence. The increasing reports of domestic violence in the KR-I should serve as a wake-up call that the current system is failing women and girls,” said Aya Majzoub.