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OHCHR open letter to investigate women’s human rights violations in Iraq
September 24, 2014
Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution S-22/1 sponsored by more than 100 states calling for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to dispatch an eleven-person mission to Iraq to investigate human rights violations committed by Islamic extremists-one of the key recommendations of the Sorensen Center, MADRE, and our partners made to the Council.
We commend the Council for taking this action, but also recognize that comprehensively addressing the rights and humanitarian needs of women and girls fleeing ISIL-controlled territories requires addressing pre-existing threats to women and girls, embedded in Iraq's laws and social norms. We urge the investigative team to therefore consider not only immediate violations committed against women and girls by ISIL, but also the context and conditions that structure women and girls' vulnerability and undermine their capacity to survive and recover from the crisis.
Please take a moment to consider signing your organization on to the open letter below calling on the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to advise the investigative team to raise critical issues in its dialogue with the Government of Iraq, including impunity concerns for honor killings, withdrawing the pending Ja’afari law, and legally allowing local women’s organizations to provide shelter for displaced families.
Sign ons can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
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September 24, 2014
Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations CH-1211 Geneva 10
Your Excellency, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein,
The undersigned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are writing to urge the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to prioritize the impact of the crisis in Iraq on women and girls, both while under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as when fleeing from violence to central and southern Iraq.
We commend the Office of the High Commissioner for organizing a mission to Iraq to investigate alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law by ISIL. Both ISIL and its rival militias are known to have committed egregious human rights violations and these actors threaten to further erode the rights of Iraqi women and girls. While all Iraqis face daily insecurity due to terrorism and civil strife, women and girls experience additional, targeted abuse because of their gender.
Comprehensively addressing the rights and humanitarian needs of women and girls fleeing ISIL-controlled territories requires addressing pre-existing threats to women and girls, embedded in Iraq's laws and social norms.
Norms of "family honor" recognized in Iraq's penal code, which permits honor considerations to mitigate sentences, are a grave threat to women and girls who have been detained or abused by ISIL fighters. Iraqi service providers report high rates of suicide among such women, who face being ostracized and targeted with killing by their family or community in the name of honor. In fact, some Iraqis have called on their Government to bomb the ISIL-controlled makeshift prisons where women are being held, sold and raped, in order to erase the perceived affront to the honor of those communities.
Severe gender discrimination in Iraq's personal status law also further erodes women's rights in the current climate. As militias mobilize throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of households have lost male breadwinners. Ensuing financial desperation has induced a rise in forced, temporary and under-aged marriages. Temporary marriages, previously rare, have re-emerged under the growing influence of certain religious leaders. In this controversial practice, women and girls are "married" in the presence of a religious figure for a fixed period of time, which can be as short as several hours. Such marriages are, in fact, a form of religiously sanctioned prostitution, with payment defined as a "dowry" to the woman or her family. However temporary marriage does not protect women from honor killings if the relationship is disclosed; neither does the man acknowledge his children who are born in such a union. Forced marriages, also on the rise, have led to a spike in suicides, especially by self-immolation, as young women protest non-consensual marriage arrangements.
The pending Ja'afari draft law, proposed prior to ISIL's incursion, threatens a number of women's human rights. It includes provisions that would lower the marrying age for girls to nine years old and legalize marital rape by entitling a husband to non-consensual sex with his wife. The draft law would also prevent women from leaving the house without permission from their husband, automatically grant custody for children over two years old to the father in divorce cases, and significantly limit women's rights in matters of inheritance. Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari introduced the draft law to the Council of Ministers on October 27, 2013. It remains pending despite strong opposition from Iraqi civil society, including some religious leaders.
In Resolution S-22/1, the Human Rights Council urges "all parties to protect civilians, in particular women and children, to respect their human rights and to meet their basic needs, which requires providing safe access for humanitarian and medical services to all affected populations." On September 19, in a statement made by the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq at the UN Security Council Ministerial Debate on Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov noted that the "pressure on local communities across Iraq is growing" and the continuing influx of 1.8 million displaced Iraqis has created "a massive shelter crisis." "With winter fast approaching," Mr. Mladenov said, "immediate measures must be enacted."
In the absence of Government sponsored services and legal remedies to address gender-based violence, local Iraqi women's NGOs are at the forefront of providing necessary services. Even before ISIL's invasion, Iraqi NGOs and women's rights defenders seeking to assist women and girls encountered regular harassment, arbitrary surveillance, and warrantless searches. Many human rights organizations are forced to operate illegally and clandestinely, especially those who shelter women fleeing violence, which remains illegal for NGOs in central and southern Iraq. Linking this imperative to the creation of lasting positive change requires strengthening the capacity of Iraqi women's organizations committed to ending gender-based violence and building a rights-based society in which democratic norms, including gender equality, can supplant sectarianism.
For these reasons we urge the investigative team to consider not only immediate violations committed against women and girls by ISIL, but also the context and conditions that structure women and girls' vulnerability and undermine their capacity to survive and recover from the crisis.
The Council has requested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provide technical and capacity-building assistance to the Government of Iraq in the implementation of human rights commitments expressed in its resolution. As the United Nations principal human rights official, the OHCHR acts as a moral authority and a voice for victims and engages in dialogue with Governments to strengthen national human rights protection. It is critical that the OHCHR investigative team engages in dialogue with the Government of Iraq to:
- Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to run private shelters for displaced families and individuals. Local Iraqi women's organizations are mobilizing an emergency response to protect people at severe risk as the threat of sectarian violence grows. They are in the best position to reach displaced families and to provide shelter and aid and their efforts must be supported.
- Withdrawal of the pending Ja'afari law that would legalize marriage for girls, aged nine years and older, sanction marital rape and limit women's rights in custody, divorce and inheritance.
- Direct the newly created fact-finding mission to meet with Iraqi women's organizations and to include gender issues in its investigation into ISIL, including widespread and systematic use of rape and enslavement, acts which constitute genocide under the Rome Statute and under the Genocide convention.
In bringing these concerns to your attention, we are lending our support to, and pledging our future assistance with, any efforts that you undertake to remedy the plight of women and girls affected by the conflict in Iraq. To this end, we respectfully request that you investigate this matter and take action as deemed appropriate.
The Sorensen Center at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law
The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
Promoting the Rights, Protection, and Physical Security of Marginalized and At-Risk Iraqis
Thousands of Iraqis today are at risk of violence and honor killings. They are deprived of their human rights, ostracized, and marginalized, and hundreds have even been brutally murdered in the past three years. With regard to honor crimes, women and girls, as well as culturally and gender non-comforming individuals alike remain at serious risk of violence due to conduct perceived to be contrary to traditional mores. Our project works to promote the rights, protection and physical security of marginalized and at-risk Iraqis and to prevent these groups from experiencing violence and protect those who are threatened.
Seeking Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Syrian Women
As violence in Syria has escalated, accounts of sexual and gender-based violence continue to grow, yet these crimes go largely undocumented as survivors are deterred from seeking medical attention or psychosocial support by cultural shame and lack of access. Our project integrates advocacy and capacity building, with documentation and reporting of women’s human rights violations in order to bring accountability and redress for these crimes in transitional justice processes as well as increase participation of Syrian women leaders with the international venues charged with upholding human rights and building peace.
Redress for Colombian Child Soldiers
The IWHR Clinic works to address human rights violations committed against demobilized child soldiers in Colombia, specifically looking at the intersection of gender and disabilities. Thousands of children have been recruited as soldiers in Colombia's armed conflict. In a war that pits the government and right-wing paramilitary groups against anti-government guerillas, all sides exploit children to advance their combat goals. Many are subjected to sexual violence and many suffer from either cognitive/social or physical disabilities. Girl members of illegal armed groups are particularly vulnerable to grave sexual violence. Clinic students engage in litigation through both UN and regional human rights mechanisms. Students work directly with clients to develop testimony; conduct in-country fact-finding investigations on human rights abuses; provide know-your-rights trainings, and; engage with UN Human Rights Experts.
Sexual Violence and LGBT Discrimination in Haiti
Post-earthquake violence against women in Haiti is widespread, especially for those living in displacement camps or poor neighborhoods. Entrenched social norms both perpetuate and justify discrimination and violence against women and deprive women of a multitude of legal rights including access to justice in the courts. Violence against LGBT community members has also been a pervasive problem in Haiti. Homosexuality remains a taboo, and as a result, the lives of many LGBTI individuals in Haiti are characterized by secrecy, isolation, discrimination, and violence. Clinic students work on addressing human rights violations committed against Haitian women and girls who are victims of sexual violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Students work directly with clients; conduct a "know your rights" training for Haitian grassroots women's groups; conduct in-country fact-finding investigations on human rights abuses; develop testimony, and; engage with those bodies and other UN Human Rights Experts, as well as relevant international and local NGOs working on this issue.
Promoting the Rights, Protection, and Physical Security of Marginalized and At-Risk Iraqis
The IWHR Clinic works to promote the rights, protection and physical security of marginalized and at-risk Iraqis and to prevent these groups from experiencing violence and protect those who are threatened. Thousands of Iraqis today are at risk of violence as a result of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or nonconformist social behavior. They are deprived of their human rights, ostracized, and marginalized, and hundreds have even been brutally murdered in the past three years. With regard to honor crimes, women, men, and members of the LGBT community alike remain at serious risk of violence do to conduct perceived to be contrary to traditional mores. Clinic students engage in litigation through both UN human rights mechanisms; collaborate with UN Human Rights Experts; develop and submit expert testimony; train partner groups on how to best identify and document cases of marginalized and at-risk Iraqis, and; conduct investigations on Iraqi gender human rights abuses.
Reproductive Rights in Texas, Asia and Latin America
This project focuses on reproductive rights issues in the United States, South Asia and Latin America. Students work with the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), an international human rights organization that works to protect reproductive rights and promote access to reproductive health services. In 2012-14, students are working to address the “perfect storm” of restrictive state and federal laws that have led to profound barriers for women seeking reproductive health care in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The Valley is one of the poorest regions in the U.S. and home to a large population of immigrants and Latinos. For more information about the women of the Rio Grande Valley see http://www.nuestrotexas.org/
Internationally, we are involved in research and advocacy to stop forced marriage in South Asia and litigation pending before the Inter-American Commission brought on behalf of a woman in Chile who was forcibly sterilized because she is HIV positive. In 2013, students drafted a brief for the Commission on international standards prohibiting forced sterilization. In past years, we have worked to reform laws criminalizing abortion and access to contraceptives in the Philippines.
Challenging the Incarceration of Youth in Adult Prisons in the United States
This project works to end the incarceration of children in adult prisons in the United States. Students are working with prisoners' rights attorney Deb LaBelle, the Campaign for Youth Justice and state activists in advocacy before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee to challenge state laws that allow children as young as 14 to be incarcerated in adult prisons. In 2013-14, students drafted submissions to international bodies, organized a visit to the US by an IACHR human rights expert and will be lobbying the UN in Geneva in March 2014 as part of the review of US compliance with its human rights obligations. In 2012-13, students worked to develop the facts around the incarceration of youth in Michigan through surveys, correspondence and interviews with incarcerated youth and organized a hearing before the Inter-American Commission in March 2013. See: IWHR Presents at Hearing on Incarceration of Youth in Adult Prisons.
Ending Collateral Consequences of Sex Trafficking
This project addresses the collateral consequences of the criminal prosecution of survivors of sex trafficking in the United States. Students work with the Legal Aid Society's Trafficking Victims Legal Defense and Advocacy Project (TVLDAP) to represent individuals seeking post-conviction relief for prostitution-related convictions. Students are also involved in international advocacy before the U.N. and law reform efforts in the U.S. to challenge the criminalization of trafficked persons in the first place, and to ensure that when they have been treated as criminals, trafficking survivors have access to effective remedies to redress the harms of criminalization.
Individual client representation involves interviewing clients, legal research, drafting legal briefs and affidavits. The advocacy work involves researching both international and U.S. laws, interviewing, report drafting, and engaging with U.N. human rights experts.