Iraqi judicial reform targets gender-based violence

At the opening of the new Family Protection Directorate in Baghdad a female representative from the Ministry of Human Rights talks with police representatives from the Ministry of Interior. (Photo: UNDP)
Opening of the new Family Protection Directorate in Baghdad. (Photo: UNDP)

The Iraqi government, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has launched a series of programmes to improve security and justice, and to tackle gender-based violence in the country.

Women in Iraq have not had equal access to justice or protection by law enforcement agencies, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.


  • UNDP has supported the establishment of six Family Protection Directorates in Iraq to improve responses to gender-based violence.
  • In Iraq, an estimated one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 has suffered physical violence at the hands of her husband.
  • Iraq’s constitution permits men to ‘discipline' their wives and limits the sentence for honour killings to three years.

“The security situation has hit vulnerable populations the worst. When we look at the situation for women, there is a fear that, rather than improving, the situation since 2003 [when the regime of Saddam Hussein was ousted following a US-led campaign] has deteriorated,” says Helen Olafsdottir, UNDP Iraq’s advisor for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

“We’ve found a huge gap in terms of addressing issues of domestic violence, and gender-based violence in general.”

In Iraq, domestic violence is a major problem that prevents women’s full participation in society. According to a 2010 UNDP-backed report, one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 has suffered physical violence at the hands of her husband.

The real figure is likely to be higher, as cases of gender-based violence often go un-reported due to women’s fears of social stigmatization and a lack confidence that authorities will investigate complaints.

According to surveys jointly conducted by the Iraqi government and the United Nations (UN) from 2006 to 2009, Iraqi women not only face high levels of violence, but also lack adequate access to care and justice.

Following decades of poor governance, Iraq lacks a robust legal framework to protect women from abuse. It also lacks shelters and adequate training for medical and law enforcement officials to respond to instances of gender-based violence.

The UNDP in Iraq is supporting the Ministries of Justice and Human Rights and the Higher Judicial Council to build the capacity of legal and judicial institutions and to help protect human rights in the country.

“We’re looking at police, at the court systems, and we have to link this up with medical assistance, psychological assistance, social workers, legal help… There’s a huge task at hand, and the Iraqi government is starting from scratch,” says Olafsdottir.

“We need to monitor and help the government monitor their effectiveness in tackling, in particular, domestic violence and gender-based violence,” she adds.

As a first step, UNDP Iraq and the Government of Iraq reviewed best practices for responding to gender-based violence in the Middle East region. The Iraqi authorities then launched a number of projects to promote similar practices in Iraq.

Additionally, as part of its three-year Family Support, Justice and Security programme launched in April 2010, the government established six specialized police units to improve responses to reports of gender-based violence. These Family Protection Directorates connect survivors to support services and legal assistance, as well as track their cases using a national database.

Two new Family Protection Directorates have been established in the capital city of Baghdad, while four have been opened in the autonomous Kurdish Region.

In September 2010, UNDP helped coordinate training in Erbil, in the Kurdish region, to teach best practices for law enforcement and victim support to police, social workers, lawyers and judges from across Iraq.
Through two other UNDP rule-of-law projects, each running through the end of 2011, the national government is conducting training for Iraqi judges in international women’s rights standards.

Up until January 2011, more than 400 Iraqi judges attended training courses in Erbil, Baghdad and Basra on topics including gender-based violence, human rights and family law.

Speaking at the launch of one of the projects, Chief Justice Medhat Al-Mahmoud said, “This programme will enhance the skills and capacity of Iraqi judges, and will help judges and Iraqi officials working in the justice sector to handle the current challenges that we face in Iraq.”