During the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, the people of Iraq suffered 35 years of repression and human rights violations. After the 1991 Gulf War, several regions of Iraq, especially those in the mostly Kurdish North and Shi’a South, revolted against the Baath regime. The Baath regime violently suppressed these uprisings, along with anyone who spoke out against the government during their rule.

It’s estimated that thousands of Iraqis disappeared between 1991 and 2003, and recently, more than 150 mass graves were discovered. It’s also well known that women in Iraq, like those in many other countries, have endured years of inequality and human rights abuse.

To what extent did the people of Iraq experience human rights violations under the Baath regime of Sadaam Hussein? And what are the current Iraqi views on women’s rights and roles in society?

A new study in the March 24/31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that nearly half of all households surveyed in southern Iraq experienced incidents of violent human rights abuse, such as beatings, kidnappings, amputations, and killings, between 1991 and 2003. The study also found that while the majority of households support a government that will protect and promote human rights, most don’t support a full range of rights for women.

About the Study

The Physicians for Human Rights, an organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, conducted the study in July 2003. Trained Iraqi men and women administered surveys in three cities in southern Iraq (An Najaf, Al Amarah, and An Nasyriyah), to a total of 2,276 households.

The surveys contained 80 questions pertaining to demographics, human rights abuses, women’s health and human rights, women’s roles in society, and conditions for human health and development. Examples of human rights abuses include: torture, killings, disappearance, forced conscription, beating, gunshot wounds, kidnappings, being held hostage, and ear amputation.

The Findings

A total of 1,991 households completed the study. Nearly all were of Arab ethnicity (99.7%) and Muslim Shi’a (96.7%). The household representatives reported on the experiences of 16,520 household members. Fifty-eight percent of the representatives were male. (The researchers made a concerted effort to ensure that women weren’t excluded as respondents).

Human Rights Abuse

Nearly half (47%) of the representatives reported that violent human rights abuses had occurred to them or one of their household members since 1991.

  • 70% of the abuses occurred at home
  • 61% of the representatives witnessed the abuses
  • 95% of the perpetrators of the abuse were identified as groups affiliated with the Baath party regime

Women’s Health, Human Rights, and Roles in Society

The majority of men and women supported equal opportunities for women regarding education, freedom of speech, access to health care, equality in deciding marriage, the number and spacing of children, and participation in community development decisions. But both men and women were less supportive of women’s rights to associate with persons of their choosing, move around freely in public, and refuse sex.

Additional findings:

  • 82% of the women reported always having to obtain permission from a husband or male relative to access health care
  • Half of the women reported using birth control; 13% stated they wanted some form of birth control but did not have access to it
  • 5% knew someone who suffered a Baath regime-related violent sexual assault
  • Only 48% of the women had a health care provider present when they gave birth
  • Half of the men and women agreed that there were reasons to restrict women’s educational and employment opportunities at this time
  • Half the men and women agreed that a man had a right to beat his wife if she did not obey him

How Does This Affect You?

This study shows the widespread human rights abuse that occurred in southern Iraqi between 1991 and 2003. The findings suggest that the people of Iraq experienced horrific persecution during this time and are prepared to share their nightmare with the rest of the world. It also suggests that while Iraqis are more then ready for a government that will protect their rights as human beings, they are not prepared to demand the same rights for men and women.

This is no small issue when it comes to unequal access to education. Research has shown that health status is associated with education level. Restricting women’s rights—whether related to education, speech, or movement—may adversely affect the health of women and girls.

But, US and Iraqi cultures are fundamentally different. While most women in the west support equal rights for both sexes, many Iraqi women apparently do not. Any attempt to bring about equal rights for women in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries needs to account for beliefs of men and women in the context of their own culture. Still, if Iraq is to be successfully rebuilt, the Iraqi’s cannot ignore the health and educational needs of all its citizens.

Another study conducted by the same organization and published in the same issue, recalls some of the most notorious human rights abuses of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. They found that almost half of all Iraqi physicians in two southern cities knew of other doctors who were involved in human rights abuses such as amputating ears as punishment and falsifying medical documents and death certificates to conceal incidents of torture and abuse. These acts of violence must be investigated and an international effort put in place to make certain they never happen again, in Iraq or anywhere.

The emotional wounds inflicted on the people of Iraq are immense and will take a long time to heal. Part of the effort on health care, therefore, will be to ensure adequate access to mental health services, another area where cultural differences may prove challenging.