Displaced women in Iraq: unjust challenges to housing and property

wo displaced Iraqi women stop to arrange their belongings as they flee from Mosul, Iraq wo displaced Iraqi women stop to arrange their belongings as they flee from Mosul, Iraq © Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

This article is a presentation of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) report on women’s housing, land and property rights in post-conflict Iraq

In May 2020, NRC released a new report titled “Broken Home,” which on how women displaced by war in Iraq remain unable to return to their homes due to systemic injustices that prevent them from proving or claiming ownership of their property.

The findings of the report are based on 59 in-depth interviews and 64 focus group discussions with women and other key stakeholders across Dohuk, Ninewa, Kirkuk and Anbar governorates conducted since 2018. A qualitative survey conducted in 2019 with 1, 002 participants and a thorough desk review of existing literature on housing, land and property issues in Iraq is also included. Furthermore, according to NRC, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the housing situation in Iraq. Thus, the Council created a ‘rapid needs assessment’ which is also included. 

There are four key findings for why it is harder for women to claim their housing, land or property rights in Iraq. Article 41 of the Iraqi Constitution allows for women to own and govern property, as well as stipulating that all Iraqis are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on sex. However, NRC found that Sharia law and local tribal laws often override the Constitution and Civil Code when it comes to ownership of property. One woman told NRC that “community leaders decide who should have what. Heads of tribes and community leaders are more important than the government.” For example, with regards to claiming inheritance (one of the most important ways for women to gain access to agricultural land in particular), it was found that 19 percent of all respondents reported that in reality women’s inheritance rights are not recognised and applied by their local heads of tribes.

The NRC highlights the extreme lack of perception and community knowledge of women’s rights in Iraq. For example, it was found that only 57 of respondents reported that women could own all types of real estate under Iraqi law. Women themselves were found to appear to have less awareness of their rights by law than men do, with the majority believing that they could only own property with their husband’s permission. In focus group discussions, men often referenced ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’ to justify not recognising their wife, daughter or sisters housing, land and property rights. An interview with a displaced woman from Anbar in Amariyat al Fallujah camp describes that after the death of her husband, “My husband's sons will not accept my return to my home. They say I have no right to his house or his money”. It was only after an intervention by the local leader that the sons agreed to give a portion of the money her husband left.

Due to many people constantly fleeing conflict, the report found that often civil documents, title deeds and rental contracts get lost, left behind, or are confiscated. In addition, the conflict has led to the deliberate and accidental destruction of civil registries which hold these documents. Based on NRC’s survey, 42 per cent of female headed households in Ninewa and 30 per cent in Anbar reported that they lacked documentation for housing and land, versus 47 per cent and 51 per cent of male headed households, respectively. Overall, women report that based on their experiences, it is much harder for them to obtain and replace documents compared to men. The women interviewed found this especially concerning for when they want to return, as they often cannot demonstrate their claim to their place of previous residence. Furthermore, the closure of courts as a result of Covid-19 measures has worsened the already massive backlog of cases in the most affected areas in Anbar, Ninewah and Kirkuk, and further delay resolution.

Women who are perceived to be affiliated with ISIS, usually by virtue of marriage or family ties, were found to have the greatest difficulty in invoking their property rights. For example, one woman told NRC in an interview that “women whose husbands [affiliated with ISIS] are dead or missing, face secondary occupation of their houses, or if they want to claim inheritance (…) they do not get protection from the government or the local community.” However, NRC found that ironically, women whose ISIS affiliated husbands who are alive and have been convicted under the antiterrorism laws have a much clearer path to obtaining documents.

The report concluded by recommending to the Iraqi government to include women’s access to housing, land and property as a priority in the procedures for document recovery; begin reconstruction of the civil registries infrastructure; and establish effective accountability mechanisms for civil servants involved in abuse of power cases that involve women. Moreover, it recommended to The Tribal Confederation (Qabalah) of Iraq to increase liaison with tribal leaders and local authorities to mitigate the divergence from the protections for women afforded by Iraqi law.


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Author: Catherine Gregoire; Editor: Sara Gorelli

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