Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but not specifically spousal rape, and permits a sentence not exceeding 15 years, or life imprisonment if the victim dies. The rape provisions of the law do not define, clarify, or otherwise describe “consent,” leaving the term up to judicial interpretation. The law requires authorities to drop a rape case if the perpetrator marries the victim, with a provision protecting against divorce within the first three years of marriage. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There were no reliable estimates of the incidence of rape or information on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNAMI reported a significant increase in the reports of rape, domestic violence, spousal abuse, immolation and self-immolation, self-inflicted injuries due to spousal abuse, sexual harassment of minors, and suicide due to increased household tensions because of COVID lockdowns, as well as economic hardship due to the country’s declining economy.
Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides reduced sentences for violence or killing if the perpetrator had “honorable motives” or if the perpetrator caught his wife or female relative in the act of adultery or sex outside of marriage. Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem.
Harassment of legal personnel who sought to pursue domestic violence cases under laws criminalizing assault, as well as a lack of trained police and judicial personnel, further hampered efforts to prosecute perpetrators.
The government and KRG also struggled to address the physical and mental trauma endured by women who lived under ISIS rule. Al-Monitor wrote in May that 10 percent of Yezidis living in the Sharya IDP camp were considering suicide. A mental health activity manager for Doctors without Borders told Voice of America in October that between April and August, her organization received 30 reports of individuals who attempted suicide.
The Ministry of Interior maintained 16 family protection units under police authority, located in separate buildings at police stations around the country, designed to resolve domestic disputes and establish safe refuges for victims of sexual or gender-based violence. These units reportedly tended to prioritize family reconciliation over victim protection and lacked the capacity to support victims. NGOs stated that victims of domestic violence feared approaching the family protection units because they suspected that police would inform their families of their testimony. Some tribal leaders in the south reportedly banned their members from seeking redress through police family protection units, claiming domestic abuse was a family matter. The family protection units in most locations did not operate shelters.
KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse, threats of violence, and spousal rape. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law and maintained a special police force to investigate cases of gender-based violence and a family reconciliation committee within the judicial system, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating gender-based violence.
In the IKR, two privately operated shelters and four KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs-operated shelters provided some protection and assistance for female victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Space was limited, and NGOs reported psychological and therapeutic services were poor. NGOs played a key role in providing services, including legal aid, to victims of domestic violence, who often received no assistance from the government. Instead of using legal remedies, authorities frequently mediated between women and their families so that the women could return to their homes. Other than marrying or returning to their families, which often resulted in further victimization by the family or community, there were few options for women accommodated at shelters.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): NGOs and the KRG reported the practice of FGM/C persisted in the IKR, particularly in rural areas of Erbil, Sulaymaniya, and Kirkuk provinces, despite a ban on the practice in IKR law. Rates of FGM/C, however, reportedly continued to decline. NGOs attributed the reduction in FGM/C to the criminalization of the practice and sustained public outreach activities by civil society groups. FGM/C was not common outside the IKR.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permitted “honor” as a lawful defense in violence against women, and so-called honor killings remained a serious problem throughout the country. A provision of the law limits a sentence for conviction of murder to a maximum of three years in prison if a man is on trial for killing his wife or a female dependent due to suspicion that the victim was committing adultery or engaged in sex outside of marriage. UNAMI reported that several hundred women died each year from honor killings. Some families reportedly arranged honor killings to appear as suicides.
In September, two young women were found dead near the town of Chamechamal, Sulaymaniya, after allegedly being killed by their father. NGOs and activists issued a statement urging IKR authorities to pursue justice for the victims who were thought to be murdered due to their father’s disapproval of their dating outside of marriage.
The KRG Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Combating Violence against Women confirmed three cases of honor killing among 26 female homicide victims in the IKR as of September. A UN source, however, observed the number of actual honor killings was likely much higher.
There were reports that women and girls were sexually exploited through so-called temporary, or pleasure, marriages, under which a man gives the family of the girl or woman dowry money in exchange for permission to “marry” her for a specified period. Young women, widowed or orphaned by ISIS offensives, were especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. In similar cases NGOs reported some families opted to marry off their underage daughters in exchange for dowry money, believing the marriage was genuine, only to have the girl returned to them months later, sometimes pregnant.
Government officials and international and local NGOs also reported that the traditional practice of nahwa, where a cousin, uncle, or other male relative of any woman may forbid or terminate her marriage to someone outside the family, remained a problem, particularly in southern provinces. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to nahwas and fasliya (where women are traded to settle tribal disputes), but these traditions continued, especially in areas where tribal influence outweighed government institutions.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Penalties for sexual harassment include fines of up to only 30 dinars (2.5 cents), imprisonment, or both, not to exceed three months for a first-time offender. The law provides relief from penalties if unmarried participants marry. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement, but penalties were very low. In most areas there were few or no publicly provided women’s shelters, information, support hotlines, and little or no sensitivity training for police. Refugees and IDPs reported regular sexual harassment, both in camps and cities.
Women political candidates suffered harassment online and on social media, including posting of fake, nude, or salacious photographs and videos meant to harm their campaigns.
Reproductive Rights: Couples have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, as well as have access to information on reproductive health, free from violence. Various methods of contraception were widely available, including in the IKR; however, women in urban areas generally had greater access than those in rural parts of the country. A married woman could not be prescribed or use contraception without the consent of her husband. Unmarried single women were also unable to obtain birth control. Divorced or widowed women, however, did not have this same restriction. Abortion is prohibited; however, a 2020 law in the IKR allows for abortion if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. In addition to consent from the mother and her husband, a committee with at least five physician must determine if the pregnancy poses a serious threat to her life.
Due to general insecurity in the country and attendant economic difficulties, many women received inadequate medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that in some governorates the work of reproductive health and pregnancy care units, as well as health awareness campaigns, had ceased almost entirely because of COVID-19’s impact on the health-care system.
In the IKR the KRG Ministry of Health reported that survivors of sexual violence received treatment from provincial health departments and emergency rooms. Judges, however, rarely considered forensic evidence that was collected. The government stated it provided full services for survivors of sexual violence and rape in all governorates, as the law requires that survivors receive full health care and treatment. Emergency contraceptives were available as part of the clinical management of rape through government services and in private clinics, although advocates who worked with survivors reported many barriers to women accessing those contraceptives, as well as significant gaps in service delivery.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The Council of Ministers’ Iraqi Women Empowerment Directorate is the lead government body on women’s issues. Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, and inheritance laws discriminate against women. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing.
For example, in a court of law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in some cases and is equal in other cases. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony other than child support or two years’ financial maintenance in some cases; in other cases the woman must return all or part of her dowry or otherwise pay a sum of money to the husband. Under the law the father is the guardian of the children, but a divorced mother may be granted custody of her children until age 10, extendable by a court up to age 15, at which time the children may choose with which parent they wish to live.
All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. Discrimination toward women on personal status issues varies depending on the religious group. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except recognized religious minorities. In all communities male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.
The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.
Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative (see section 2.d.). Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
NGOs also reported cases in which courts changed the registration of Yezidi women to Muslim against their will because of their forced marriage to ISIS fighters.
The KRG provided some additional legal protections to women, maintaining a High Council of Women’s Affairs and a Women’s Rights Monitoring Board to enforce the law and prevent and respond to discrimination, but such protections were applied inconsistently. Other portions of KRG law continued to mirror federal law, and women faced discrimination. KRG law allows women to set as a prenuptial condition the right to divorce her husband beyond the limited circumstances allowed by Iraqi law and provides a divorced wife up to five years’ alimony beyond child care.
Birth Registration: The constitution states that anyone born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen. Failure to register births resulted in the denial of public services such as education, food, and health care. Single women and widows often had problems registering their children, although in most cases authorities provided birth certificates after registration of the birth through the Ministries of Health and Interior; such registration was reportedly a lengthy and at times complicated process. The government was generally committed to children’s rights and welfare, although it denied benefits to noncitizen children. Humanitarian organizations reported a widespread problem of children born to members of ISIS or in ISIS-held territory failing to receive a government-issued birth certificate. An estimated 45,000 displaced children living in camps lacked civil documentation, including birth certificates, and the issue also affected many IDPs living outside of IDP camps.
Education: Primary education is compulsory for citizen children for the first six years of schooling and until age 15 in the IKR; it is provided without cost to citizens. Equal access to education for girls remained a problem, particularly in rural and insecure areas. Recent, reliable statistics on enrollment, attendance, or completion were not available.
Schools continued to be closed from February onward, putting more than 10 million students out of school. UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education to broadcast lessons through education television and digital platforms. Children’s access to alternative learning platforms via the internet and television, however, was hindered by limited connectivity and availability of digital devices, as well as lack of electricity. Moreover, the Ministry for Directorates of Education had not issued directives for guiding the delivery of distance learning.
Child Abuse: Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides protections for children who were victims of domestic violence or were in shelters, state houses, and orphanages, including access to health care and education. Violence against children reportedly remained a significant problem, but up-to-date, reliable statistics on the extent of the problem were not available. Local NGOs reported the government made little progress in implementing its 2017 National Child Protection Policy.
UNICEF reported that during the year, at least 1.64 million children, half of them girls, were estimated to need at least one type of protective service. UNICEF and its implementing partners continued to deliver psychosocial support; case management and specialized protection services for children, including birth registration; civil documentation and legal assistance; and capacity development of national partners. UNICEF also worked with Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and NGO partners in establishing referral mechanism and alternative care arrangements for children affected by COVID-19. They purchased and distributed personal protective equipment kits for 2,511 children in detention centers and children’s homes, while continuing to advocate for the release of children from prison. A total of 440 children were released from detention since the start of the pandemic. The Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting verified 24 grave violations, affecting 23 children, compared with 16 verified grave violations affecting 16 children in the previous quarter.
KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse and threats of violence. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating child abuse. The KRG’s Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Education, and Culture and Youth operated a toll-free hotline to report violations against, or seek advice regarding, children’s rights. Multiple reports of child abuse surfaced during the year. Activists reported sexual abuse and assault by relatives was widespread and that some victims did not report crimes due to fear of retribution by family members.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but the law allows a judge to permit children as young as 15 to marry if fitness and physical capacity are established and the guardian does not present a reasonable objection. The law criminalizes forced marriage but does not automatically void forced marriages that have been consummated. The government reportedly made few efforts to enforce the law. Traditional early and forced marriages of girls, including temporary marriages, occurred throughout the country. UNHCR reported the continued prevalence of early marriage due to conflict and economic instability, as many families arranged for girls to marry cousins or into polygamous households. Others gave their daughters as child brides to armed groups as a means to ensure their safety, access to public services in occupied territories, or livelihood opportunities for the entire family.
In the IKR the legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but KRG law allows a judge to permit a child as young as 16 to marry if the individual is entering into the marriage voluntarily and has received permission from a legal guardian. KRG law criminalizes forced marriage and suspends, but it does not automatically void, forced marriages that have been consummated. According to the KRG High Council of Women’s Affairs, refugees and IDPs in the IKR engaged in child marriage and polygamy at a higher rate than IKR residents. Some Kurdish men crossed over into federal Iraqi territory to acquire a child bride since those laws are not as strict.
The KRG assigned police and officials from the office to combat domestic violence to deter parents from forcing their children into marriages and to conduct awareness campaigns to combat sexual violence.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Child prostitution was a problem, as were temporary marriages, particularly among the IDP population. Because the age of legal criminal responsibility is nine in the areas administered by the central government and 11 in the IKR, authorities often treated sexually exploited children as criminals instead of victims. Penalties for commercial exploitation of children range from fines and imprisonment to the death penalty. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement.
Displaced Children: Insecurity and active conflict between government forces and ISIS caused the continued displacement of large numbers of children. Abuses by government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, contributed to displacement. Due to the conflict in Syria, children and single mothers from Syria took refuge in the IKR. UNICEF reported that almost one-half of IDPs were children.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at
Trafficking in Persons
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct if those engaging in the conduct are younger than age 18, while it does not criminalize any same-sex activities among adults. Despite repeated threats and violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, specifically gay men, the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute attackers or to protect targeted individuals.
In May the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned foreign embassies for offending what it called the country’s “norms and values” when the EU mission hoisted the rainbow flag, commonly associated with LGBTI persons, on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Several Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum also condemned the incident, with some calling for the EU mission to be closed. A few days later, media outlets reported that a young gay man was killed in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, and another in Babil Province, in an apparent backlash against the flag raising.
LGBTI individuals also faced intimidation, threats, violence, and discrimination in the IKR. LGBTI individuals reported they could not live openly in the IKR without fear of violence at the hands of family members, acquaintances, or strangers. Rasan Organization for gender-based violence and LGBT awareness posted a video documentary in September 2019 about the impact of COVID-19 on LGBT individuals in the IKR. LGBTI individuals struggled to be accepted by their family members and the IKR community and disguised their identity from their families due to fear of violence, verbal abuse, and killing.
According to NGOs, Iraqis who experienced severe discrimination, torture, physical injury, and the threat of death on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics had no recourse to challenge those actions via courts or government institutions.