Abeer is a legal advisor by profession and has been working with NGOs in Iraq for the last 8 years – most recently as DRC Iraq’s Legal Specialist.
Every year since 2010, June 23rd has marked International Widows' Day
International Widows' Day is a day of global awareness on the challenges and human rights violations that widows suffer in many countries, including in Iraq.
One in 10 displaced households are headed by women, often widows, and face additional challenges in the pursuit of durable solutions to their displacement – including higher levels of poverty and exposure to gender-based violence. Indeed, nearly five years after the government declared an end to the conflict with the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), female-headed households are more likely to still in displacement than households headed by men.
To mark the day, and tell us more about some of the particular challenges widows can face in accessing their civil documentation in Iraq, we spoke with Abeer Rafeeq. Abeer is a legal advisor by profession and has been working with NGOs in Iraq for the last 8 years – most recently as DRC Iraq’s Legal Specialist. Lack of access to civil documentation remains a barrier to durable solutions, and – as Abeer tells us – can have impact on widows’ safety, legal identity, access to services and financial wellbeing.
What motivated you to join DRC, and work on legal issues specifically?
"I am a lawyer by profession, and I was always very interested to work on human rights issues. I prefer working for NGOs because I get the satisfaction that I have helped someone who was in need. I’ve now been working with various NGOs for the last 8 years. Over this time, I have met many women, girls and people who are experiencing a range of legal issues. Hearing their stories motivated me to stay in the sector and to work harder," says Abeer.
What are some of the challenges you’ve seen in communities surrounding access to civil documentation? Why is this such an important issue?
"Lack of civil documentation is one of the main protection issues faced by vulnerable people in Iraq. Reasons behind lack of civil documentation could be that it was lost or destroyed during the conflict or while fleeing fighting, that it was confiscated by security actors or when internally displaced people entered informal sites or camps, or voluntary misplacement of the documents due to fear of arrest or being perceived as affiliated to extremist groups. Or, they may have lacked documents even before the conflict, and been unable to get new ones due to disruptions of services or displacement," Abeer explains.
"Missing these documentations – things like IDs, birth and marriage certificates – can put people at risk of a series of human rights violations, including risks of statelessness, limited freedom of movement, arbitrary arrest and detention, and abuse and exploitation. It can also prevent people from accessing basic services, including healthcare, education and government food and social welfare assistance. To mitigate these risks and threats, DRC provides legal awareness to help build people’s knowledge of their rights and legal processes, as well as counselling and assistance to directly help them work through the procedures to secure their documentation. This includes in Salah al-Din and Ninewa Governorates, where DRC has recently started a new project with the support of the European Union," says Abeer.
Why is this something that’s relevant for International Widows' Day?
"Women in general are among the most vulnerable groups in Iraq. After the conflict, especially in areas that fell under ISIS control, there are large numbers of widows and children without civil documentation. Widows can be stigmatized in our society and are constrained by gender norms which – for example – restrict them from travelling to access services without a male escort, which would have been the traditional role of their husband. This is especially difficult for those still displaced, who often have to travel to their areas of origin to complete civil documentation processes. Even when they are able to travel and access the governmental directorates, some women have told us they worry about being exposed to harassment – be it sexual, verbal or physical. We’ve also heard from some women that if their late husband or another male relative is perceived as a supporter of extremist groups – however out of her control that may be – widows can be required to go through extra security processes to get their documents. Even after completing that process, which often requires them to denounce their husband or relative, they can still be denied," Abeer explains.
Abeer continues, "But, perhaps the biggest impacts on widows is financial. Because of gender norms which largely restrict women’s ability to work, most widows were relying on their husband’s income and – without documents – are not able to access either his pension, compensation or other welfare services. It can also mean that they can’t re-marry, or that they and their children may face challenges accessing health and education services. Widows we have worked with have mentioned concerns particularly around their children’s future, and their ability to go to school if they’re missing the required documents. For example, in one of the locations where we work, I met two internally displaced women who had lost their husbands during the conflict. They both had two children who should be in school now, but they couldn’t register the children because they didn’t have the civil ID or residency card. Getting those documents required them to get sole custody of their children, for which they needed to get a death certificate for their husband – a notoriously difficult process. And to do any of this, they had to travel back to their area of origin, which was not possible for security reasons. They also needed to hire a lawyer, who quoted them a fee of 8 million IQD [approximately 5,400 USD], which was far beyond their means. So, as you can see, it’s a very complex issuem."
What is one thing you would like people to know about the situation in Iraq?
"One of the most important issues coming out is the need to open registrations for social welfare benefits. Iraq has a social welfare system which can provide households with support, like the widows’ pension, which is often the only source of financial support or state benefit for widows. So far, though, the government is still working on old cases, and have generally not been registering new cases for the past 8 years. This means that thousands of women who depend on those benefits to survive, including those who have lost husbands in the conflict, have not been able to access them. I think it’s also important to note that international assistance has had a huge impact in helping women access their documents and alleviate some of the financial challenges widows face – it’s important to continue this support," Abeer says.
"More broadly, I think there’s a need to increase awareness about women’s rights for Iraq communities, including to combat stigma widows may face. Access to civil documentation – and the access to services that allows – are rights enshrined in Iraqi law and should be upheld in a way that protects women and men equally," she adds.