Tackling violence against women: from Iraq to Tajikistan

Women sit together in Tajikistan
Women sit together in Tajikistan where we are working to raise awareness of gender based violence. Photo: Andy Hall

16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is here: Oxfam's Regional Gender Advisor for Oxfam in the Middle East and Commonwealth of Independent States (MECIS), Nina Gora, comments on the challenges women in the Middle East are facing in the wake of crises and political upheavals.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Campaign is as important this year as it was when it originated in 1991. Globally, 35% of women and girls have experienced domestic violence or sexual violence in their lifetime. More than 700 million women alive today were married as children, 250 million of whom were married before the age of 15. And the problem is not going away.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the issue of violence against women (VAW) is particularly acute, with above average levels of violence. Intimate partner violence is at 35.38% compared to the global average of 26.4%and we are witnessing high levels of VAW in the fragile contexts and crises where Oxfam operates.

Women and girls in times of crisis

In the Syria Crisis, there is evidence of families resorting to negative coping mechanisms, which adversely impact women and girls, including early marriage and survival sex. In instances of female headed households (which now account for over 145,000 Syrian refugee households) our case workers have noticed exploitation by landlords, who offer free accommodation and money in exchange for sexual favours.

In contexts of political transition and upheaval sexual harassment against women in public spaces is used as a tool of intimidation so that space is 'reclaimed' by men. In Egypt this has been particularly pronounced, with a UN study showing that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Violence against women takes many forms. In Iraq, where Oxfam is conducting a comprehensive gender analysis, women are expected to conform to rigidly defined cultural norms and expectations. One seamstress, a beneficiary of an Oxfam Small Businesses programme, was happy to be generating an income and accessing the market, but faced threats from her husband that he would take another wife if she failed to do more care and household work.

The example above highlights two fundamental challenges of our work: firstly, that in many contexts where Oxfam works women carry the full responsibility of care and household activities, and secondly, that women often lack the voice or space to uphold their Islamic and legal rights. Despite the criminalisation of domestic violence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, one woman we interviewed said, 'If I ask my husband to help with the housework, he will beat me.'

Oxfam believes that violence against women is not a marginal or trivial issue in relation to development, and is one of the most widespread barriers to Oxfam's mission to end poverty.

How we are responding

Oxfam across the Middle East and Commonwealth of Independent States (MECIS) is responding to the 16 Days of Activism with creative and diverse activities from Russia through to Iraq. The activities reflect Oxfam's approach to VAW, which is to strengthen the organisational capacity and sustainability of new or growing movements of women's rights organisations, to engage men and boys to address entrenched notions of masculinity, to support alliance-building and to invest in an evidence-base of research with which to raise awareness and advocate for change.

In Armenia, the team are raising awareness around gender inequality issues. This will be done through; four educational films on the widespread practices of women rights violations in Armenia, including ways to address them, public lectures with Q&A sessions on women's economic inequality in Armenia, a photo contest and exhibition "We Are for Gender Equality in Armenia", and an online action with celebrities sharing pictures of themselves with Oxfam's message.

In Iraq, a new country programme for Oxfam, activities will focus on awareness raising about gender based violence issues among staff. In Tajikistan, Oxfam is conducting a survey as an entry point for raising awareness about GBV in communities. The interviews and focus group discussions will provide an opportunity to share information about GBV related laws and to discuss issues around GBV, whilst also developing an evidence-base for Oxfam's advocacy and programming efforts.

Gender Justice is fundamentally a political issue and so requires us to influence, advocate and act, both internally and externally. Today especially, at the start of the 16 Days of Activism against GBV Campaign, we are encouraged to do just that.