Iraq urged to introduce domestic violence law after woman's horrific death shocks the country

Iraq urged to introduce domestic violence law after woman's horrific death shocks the country
The husband of a woman who died of severe burn wounds has been arrested but Iraqi authorities need to do more to prevent domestic violence, HRW has said.
4 min read
22 April, 2020
Iraq's legal code allows men to 'punish' their wives [AFP]
Iraq is in dire need of new domestic violence legislation after the suspicious death of a 20-year-old woman in Najaf, Human Rights Watch has said.

The New York-based rights organisation has urged lawmakers to act amid the coronavirus pandemic as lockdown measures lead to rising rates of domestic abuse worldwide.

The fresh call for domestic violence protections comes after the death of a 20-year-old woman in the southern city of Najaf last week.

Videos emerged on social media showing a woman hospitalised with severe burns amid speculation she had been injured at the hands of her husband.

The woman's mother told HRW she had married the man, a police officer, eight months ago and had only been allowed to visit her parents once since the wedding.

In an 8 April phone call from the man who told the woman's mother that her daughter had been hospitalised after a "slight burn accident", the mother heard screams.

She told the rights organisations that she was at first barred from visiting her daughter in hospital but was later able to access her hospital room on 11 April.

Her daughter said she had been severely beaten by her husband. She then poured gasoline over herself and warned him that if he continued beating her she would set herself alight.

"I still don't know if he lit her on fire or she did it herself, but she told me she burned for three minutes while he just watched, and finally his father, also a policeman, came in and put out the fire," the mother told HRW.

"She begged them to take her to the hospital but they waited for over an hour before doing so. Her father-in-law then pretended to the police that he was her father and said to them the fire had been an accident," she said.

Louai Al-Yasiri, governor of Najaf, told HRW that authorities have arrested the husband, father-in-law and husband's uncle and launched an investigation.

However, the incident would likely be solved through a mediation in which the husband's clan would reach a settlement with the woman's family, Yasiri said. 

Legislation proposed last year advocates for such reconciliation between domestic abuse survivors and their spouses, HRW said.

Lawmakers 'block' protections

"Domestic violence has always plagued Iraq," said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW. "We see case upon case of women and girls dying at the hands of their families, but Iraq's lawmakers do nothing to save lives."

Although the Iraqi constitution prohibits "all forms of violence and abuse in the family", only the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq has a law on the books that specifically targets domestic abuse.

Iraq's criminal code includes an article that allows a husband to "punish" his wife, in addition to affording parents the right to discipline their children "within limits prescribed by law or custom".

It also provides for reduced sentences for violent acts, including murder, that were committed for so-called "honourable motives".

Parliamentary efforts to introduce an explicit domestic violence law have failed over the last year.

Wahda Jumaili, a member of the parliamentary human rights committee, told HRW that some lawmakers had blocked the draft law as they believed that the law should not punish parents' corporal punishment of their children or so-called honour crimes.

A 2019 draft law included provisions for restraining orders and services for domestic violence survivors but had several gaps that would allow abuse to continue, HRW said. 

One major issue is that the draft law prioritised community reconciliation overprotection and prosecution.

Domestic violence cases are rarely reported to the police, and advocates say those who do report incidents are rarely protected effectively. Iraq has few shelters for domestic abuse survivors and regularly houses victims in prisons.

HRW has called on Iraq to immediately implement protections for domestic violence survivors amid the Covid-19 pandemic, during which many will be trapped at home with abusive spouses.

When parliament resumes its sessions, it should then revise the draft law to ensure it meets international standards and pass it without delay, the rights organisation added. 

"It should not take a global pandemic for Iraqi legislators to address the other deadly pandemic of domestic violence, but failure to do so will cost more lives," Wille said.

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