Hearing a Voice: Reframing the Issue of Sex Trafficking in the Iraqi Legal System and Society

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WARNING: this piece contains discussions of rape.

Host Intro: Sex trafficking is a widespread problem for women and girls in Iraq. For sex trafficking victims, currently their voice is silenced under the law, society typically views them as prostitutes, and limited social resources exist once they are free. War News Radio’s Sabrina Merold spoke to Sherizaan Minwala, an expert on the sex trafficking of women and girls in Iraq about how honor codes predispose women to become victims of sex-trafficking, why combating sex-trafficking is not a priority in Iraq, and what could be done to change sex trafficking in the Iraqi legal system and in society.

MEROLD If you’re a woman in Iraq and, for whatever reasons, you’re seen with a boy who is not a close family member, you don’t return home for a night, or you stay in a women’s shelter, the last thing you want to do is go back home. That’s because these all expose a woman or girl to face honor violence at her home, leaving her afraid to return and susceptible to falling into the hands of sex traffickers. When these women and girls are arrested for prostitution, even though Iraq signed into law a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in 2012, they are typically convicted and placed in jail. With turmoil and violence in Iraq, the issue of sex trafficking is just not a priority. On the societal level and in the legal system, for change to occur, Sherizaan Minwalla believes we need to reframe how we view women and girls. They are victims of sex trafficking not prostitutes. The problem is, we rarely hear from a girl in this situation.

MINWALLA The laws, the systems, the practices all of that is important but I think starting from the perspective of the victims, hearing their voices and really listening to them is so important. The piece that is so tough is just having compassion for the victims and really understanding how they got there, what they are going through, what keeps them in that situation. I think once we develop that compassion and that understanding a lot can come from that.

MEROLD That’s Sherizaan Minwalla, the Deputy Country Director in Iraq for Mercy Corps, an international development organization based in the United States. In Iraq, honor codes run deep. These traditions – not strictly religious, but common in Muslim societies – mean that an entire family’s reputation is jeopardized by the perceived sexual impurity of any female member. In the eyes of many tribal, religious, and community leaders, killing a woman that has had sex outside of marriage, even in the case of rape, is the best way to restore family dignity. Minwalla believes honor violence leaves women fearful for their safety yet escaping honor violence does not ensure freedom but a high risk of being trafficked into prostitution.

MINWALLA You know if the relationship comes out that puts you at risk. You might be killed by your father or uncle or someone else in the family but then also once you leave home because you are afraid, that puts you at risk. I’ve seen cases where girls have been involved in a relationship. Then they are afraid that they father is going to find out and then the men who they were involved with they ask for help to get away or run away and then they end up taking them to a brothel.

MEROLD Surprisingly, Minwalla says that in many cases, women can’t even trust another woman to help them find a safe way to independence from their families. Women are often complicit in the sex trade, working as middlemen between traffickers and vulnerable populations or even as traffickers.

MINWALLA I have seen those really awful cases where women have been recruited through women’s protective shelters. In 2007, where the director of a women’s shelter was trafficking and abusing and exploiting residents in the shelter along with her husband. I also saw another case of a shelter in Sulaymaniyah. One of the smaller shelters where one of the night monitors recruited a 14 year old girl into trafficking by promising to take her to her parents where she would have a better life and where she could live in a center protected shelter. She called two men who picked them up and raped this young girl and then left her at a brothel.

MEROLD Iraq passed a comprehensive anti-trafficking law in 2012, but the justice system is still stacked against victims of sex trafficking. Women are seen as prostitutes, people that don’t deserve legal representation, rather than the targets of crime. Lawyers have to prove that their clients are even worth defending.

MINWALLA Lawyers would go into court and essentially say that these women and girls were forced into prostitution and that is a defense to criminal activity because under the Iraqi code if you are forced into committing a crime you could claim a legal defense. Then they really need to be able to have quality representation. There is a lot of crimes you will find that the evidence is out there that could bolster their case but nobody is really looking for it and everyone is just complacent. I’ve seen judges who have called clients and lawyers whores in court. It simply requires training of lawyers and lawyers who are willing to put their own reputation on the line when they go into court.

MEROLD Beyond training lawyers, in order to further the progress that is currently been made in dropping cases or finding victims of sex trafficking not guilty, Minwalla believes that judges need to be educated on the issue of sex trafficking.

MINWALLA I think there are some judges who you may never win over but there has definitely been change and the fact that we have seen judges drop charges, not refer cases for trail, find their clients not guilty. I mean I think that is huge progress and so if we could sort of start from where we have seen success and build out from that I think a lot of change can happen.

MEROLD Although change could happen, a consequence of the ongoing volatile security situation in Iraq is that the Iraqi government, donors, and policy makers disregard the importance of implementing change and developing a response to sex trafficking. In Minwalla’s opinion, it does not make sense to wait and respond once the security situation is resolved because sex trafficking and security are greatly interconnected. Syrian refugees pouring into the northern region of Kurdistan have added to instability. These populations, Minwalla says, easily get caught in existing trafficking webs.

MINWALLA Again, there is a lot of trafficking in Kurdistan so when these refugees came they were already walking into a situation where the environment existed that could exploit their vulnerabilities. Of course when refugees don’t have money or resources and they are vulnerable you always end up finding these situations where poor women and girls are trafficked.

MEROLD For women that manage to get their case cleared or dismissed and escape sex trafficking, they still can’t return home. Their purity and honor have been lost. The few shelters that exist for these victims are hardly safe. Even some Ministry of the Interior guards tasked with policing shelters could be linked to traffickers. Minwalla believes that addressing legal issues is important but a long-term social service program is also needed to provide victims with safe shelter and figure out long-term solutions so they do not end up being recruited back into trafficking. Currently, the resources in Iraq are so limited that the focus on victims of sex trafficking is very minimal. Yet, according to Minwalla, change can slowly begin by simply having compassion for the victims of sex trafficking and being willing to listen from their perspective, as victims, and hear their voices.

For War News Radio, I’m Sabrina Merold.

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