The Future of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Iraq

by | Apr 12, 2024

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About Nayla Rida

Nayla is pursuing the MSc in Modern Middle Eastern Studies '24 at St Antony's College, Oxford and holds a previous MA in Education, Gender and International Development 22' from UCL's Institute of Education.

The Republic of Iraq ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1986 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 1971. However, like many other countries which have ratified them, enforcement of these treaties’ provisions has been minimal due to reasons ranging from social norms to lack of political will. Further, current beliefs and practices relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are a function of one’s ethnic group, religion, sect, and tribe within the country. For example, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whilst lacking UN representation, has a separate Ministry of Health from the Iraqi Government altogether.

The concept of SRHR for all has been pushed forward by development actors such as international non-governmental organisations, the United Nations through various treaties and specialised agencies, the Sustainable Development Goals with most specifically its target 3.7, as well as grassroots advocacy and education efforts throughout the Global North and Global South. Article 10 and Article 16 of the CEDAW—the most authoritative women’s rights treaty in the world which 189 member states have ratified—both state the importance of family planning education and women’s and girls’ agency in taking decisions regarding their bodies, whilst Article 12 of the CESCR details the obligations of state parties on the matter and highlights the normative rationale and context through which these have been agreed upon.

However, these rights are only partially protected in Iraq, with contraception being legal, abortion illegal, and domestic violence only prohibited by law in the Kurdish region. According to a 2020 Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan country report by Save the Children on barriers to family planning, contraceptives are available throughout the country despite a widely held reluctance to use them due to health concerns, lack of education or social stigma. These efforts come within the context of the Iraqi National Birth Spacing and Family Planning Strategy which started in 2021 and aims to reach an average of 3.5 births per woman by 2025, and of 3 births per woman by 2030. Abortion is only accessible if a woman’s life is in danger and two health professionals and her husband authorise it. This leads women to pursue unsafe, clandestine abortion, especially in cases of rape, which is exacerbated in the context of widespread conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).

In addition, female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely practiced even in Erbil, the capital of one of the governorates with the highest Subnational Human Development Index (SHDI) and Gender Development Index (GDI) in the country, with a staggering 58.6% rate of women having undergone it, of which 60.2% did so while they were 4-7 years old. According to the World Health Organization’s data, the total prevalence of FGM in Iraq is less than 10%, making Erbil city’s rate much higher than the national average. The high prevalence of this dangerous and costly practice in Iraqi Kurdistan is well-documented in the academic literature and beyond, but it is important to note that it significantly declined from 2011 to 2018 due to the introduction in 2011 of The Act of Combating Domestic Violence in Kurdistan Region-Iraq. Article 2 of this Act explicitly prohibits FGM. However, the other regions of Iraq still lack such regulations to protect women from domestic violence and harmful traditional practices.

Lastly, data on the remaining key element of SRHR, namely Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE), remains relatively scarce in the country, as Iraqi schools do not currently provide it. However, a 2023 study by al-Gburi et al. states that “most respondents (85.5%) agreed to the need for sex education during middle or high school”, showing potential for change in the coming years.

This, put together with the aforementioned stark decline in FGM in Iraqi Kurdish populations, and government efforts to lower the national fertility rate, could be seen as an encouraging sign when it comes to the future of SRHR in the country. However, there is still much need for legal and policy reform, including implementations to navigate the current practical setbacks around access to abortion, the socio-economic divide, and the scarcity of public resources.

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