Heartland Alliance International (HAI) has been working in Iraq since 2004, helping victims of human rights abuses heal and obtain justice, and building the capacity of Iraqi human rights activists and organizations.  HAI is active in torture prevention and treatment, gender-based violence and suicide prevention, human trafficking, juvenile justice reform, LGBT rights, mental health, refugee protection, and religious and ethnic minority rights. HAI is based in Iraqi Kurdistan, but is active throughout Iraq.

In Iraq, HAI focuses in a number of areas, including:

Supporting Displaced People, Minorities, and Victims of Trafficking

Background: Displacement, Minorities, and Trafficking

Since 2003, Iraq has been in a nearly continuous state of war, and in recent years, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has exacerbated the country’s already significant, ongoing displacement crisis. Individuals living in regions under ISIL’s control face suicide attacks against civilians, kidnapping and executions, forced marriage of women and girls, and rape and enslavement of women and children. Religious and ethnic minorities – including Yezidis, Shabbak, Turkmen, Christians (both Chaldean and Assyrian), and Roma – have been heavily affected by the rise of ISIL.

  • In 2014, ISIL invaded Sinjar, home to a large settlement of Yazidi people, killing nearly 5,000 Yazidi men and capturing thousands of Yazidi women and children
  • Turkmen and Shabbaks have been intimidated, abducted, and killed in Northern Iraq
  • Iraq’s Christian population has decreased by more than half since 2013

The rise of ISIL and the influx of displaced Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has also led to an increase in human trafficking in Iraq, where victims of trafficking are often exploited for prostitution, domestic, servitude, forced labor, and armed conflict. Iraq is both a source and destination country for trafficking, which means that Iraqis are trafficked outside of the country – usually to neighboring countries – and that people are trafficked from outside of Iraq into the country.

  • Nearly 3.3 million Iraqis are displaced across the country
  • 230,000 Syrian refugees are living in Iraq, mostly concentrated in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region

ISIL abducts and forcibly recruits young men and children as young as 8 years old to serve in combat or support fighters. The group has also kidnapped thousands of women and girls from a range of ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, including the Yazidi community, who are then sold to fighters in Iraq and Syria and subjected to forced marriage, sexual slavery, rape, and domestic servitude. In 2015, thousands of women and girls escaped ISIL captivity, but in Iraq’s complex political, social, and economic landscape, these victims remain vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including re-trafficking.

While Iraq passed a law to combat trafficking in 2012, the government has failed to adequately investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes and protect victims of trafficking from arrest and prosecution

Programs: Displacement, Minorities, and Trafficking

  • Since 2014, HAI has been working to provide critical legal services for the massive—and growing—number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan. In order to access basic services IDPs must have identification cards; however, these are often confiscated by local authorities. HAI provides direct legal services and education to refugees and IDPs and also works to build the capacity of the Iraqi government, immigration and judicial officials, local attorneys, and social workers who serve these populations.
  • HAI provides mental health and legal services for religious and ethnic minority groups in Kurdistan—such as the Kaka’i, Yazidi, and Turkman peoples—who have historically been targets of discrimination, including those who have been captured by ISIL.
  • HAI implements anti-trafficking efforts in Kurdistan by providing care for survivors and educating doctors, lawyers, judges, and the media to help these groups more effectively identify victims, investigate crimes, and report on the realities of trafficking.

Impact: Displacement, Minorities, and Trafficking

  • HAI has provided mental health services and legal counseling and representation to more than 1,500 individuals from religious and ethnic minority groups, helping them prevent further discrimination and continued violence and recover assets, including land.
  • HAI has secured the return of 3,800 confiscated identification cards to internally displaced persons (IDPs)
  • HAI advocated for 7,000 IDPs to register for identification cards and despite resistance from the local government, the majority were registered
  • HAI advocated with local organizations for Yazidi women who escaped ISIL to be accepted back into the community, and Yazidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh not only welcomed the survivors back, but blessed them.
  • HAI assisted 70 female heads of household whose husbands were extra-judicially killed (and thus not recognized by the state as dead) to navigate the legal intricacies and register their husbands’ deaths in order to ensure that they receive services as widows
  • HAI helped develop Kurdistan’s Law to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which successfully passed through the first Parliamentary reading before the financial crisis in the region stalled government activity.

Addressing Violence Against Women

Background: Violence Against Women

Gender-based violence occurs throughout the world and is often exacerbated in areas of conflict, where violence against women and girls is used as a military tactic and systems that protect and prevent violence are weakened. The ongoing conflict in Iraq has particularly affected women and girls, and some of the consequences include:

  • Civilian casualties: From 2003-2013, human rights groups estimated that 10% of the 130,000 civilians killed in conflict in Iraq were women.
  • Moral crimes: Sunni and Shi’a militias and extremist groups such as ISIL have threatened, assaulted, or assassinated women for committing “moral crimes,” including wearing “Western” clothing, leaving the home without a male relative, or taking on an active public role, such as working as a lawyer, journalist, activist, or politician.
  • Abduction and trafficking: Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being abducted and held for ransom or sold into forced domestic labor or sexual exploitation.
  • Sexual violence: Women in areas of conflict experience high levels of sexual violence, and an Iraqi survey indicates that less than 3% of rapes are reported in Iraq.

Women who survive kidnapping, trafficking, and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence often experience lasting stigma and are at risk for honor killings and other forms of violence at the hands of family members or the community.

  • In Sulaymaniyah and Ninewa, two provinces in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, at least 300 women enter emergency departments with severe burns that are self-inflicted or caused by family members each year. Sixty to 80 percent of these women do not survive treatment, and those who do endure chronic pain, physical immobility and disfigurement, facing stigma and rejection from their families and communities.
    • Burn survivors often cite forced marriage, physical and emotional violence, divorce, familial challenges, financial problems and social isolation as motivators for attempting to end their lives.
    • Lack of education and employment for women and girls, low self-confidence, and poor communication skills are contributing factors in domestic violence and suicide attempts.

Programs: Violence Against Women

  • HAI addresses sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) in many aspects of our work, including providing mental health and legal services to survivors of trafficking and researching the root causes of GBV, including female genital mutilation.
  • HAI provides mental health and legal services for women who have self-immolated or been burned by family members in the Burn Units of three hospitals in Kurdistan and Federal Iraq. Patient care teams of social workers, mental health professionals, nurses and doctors assess each woman’s safety needs, determine long-term care options and refer to legal services. HAI also advocates against GBV and self-immolation, educating youth about women’s safety and suicide prevention.

Impact: Violence Against Women

  • In 2016, HAI published a report investigating the prevalence of female genital mutilation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and providing recommendations for eradicating the practice.
  • HAI uses the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ) and the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL) to measure improvements in symptoms of trauma for women who have self-immolated. Burn survivors experienced 25% decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression following HAI’s interventions.

Improving Mental Health Infrastructure

Background: Mental Health

Years of political repression, social unrest, and ongoing war have taken their toll on the Iraqi people.  However, due to limited and insufficient mental health services and high stigmatized public perceptions of mental health care, many Iraqis do not have access to much-needed support. The existing mental health facilities often have inadequately trained staff and outdated infrastructure.

Programs: Mental Health

  • HAI has worked extensively with the Government of Iraq (GoI) to improve mental health facilities and treatment practices in both the Kurdistan region and Federal Iraq.

Impact: Mental Health

  • HAI helped legislators, psychiatrists, and community stakeholders draft and pass a Mental Health Act in 2013 that set forth guidelines regarding the rights of institutionalized persons.
  • HAI helped regulate the use of electroconvulsive therapy, limiting it to people with severe depression, and only with patient consent and proper anesthesia.
  • In partnership with the Ministry of Health, HAI succeeded in shutting down an inhumane facility for the mentally ill in Erbil, and transferring its patients to more appropriate facilities for alternative treatment.
  • In 2008, HAI established the Trauma Rehabilitation and Treatment Center (TRTC), a pioneering organization that combatted stigma associated with mental health and provided services to survivors of violence and other forms of trauma. TRTC evolved to become an independent mental health organization called Wchan, a name meaning “rest” in Kurdish.
    • Today, Wchan works with HAI and other NGOs and serves hundreds of individuals each year.
  • From 2008 to 2013, HAI partnered with Johns Hopkins University to conduct the first comprehensive trials on mental health treatment in Iraq. Two studies explored three different treatment approaches and found that the Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA) was the most effective for treating survivors of torture. Based on this evidence, Wchan adopted CETA as its central treatment method.

Providing Juveniles Access to Justice

Background: Juvenile Justice

Iraq’s juvenile justice system violates international human rights standards in multiple ways. Many children and youth – especially those from ethnic minorities, low-income, or “dishonorable” families – lack access to high-quality, specialized legal services and face excessively punitive sentences.

Children’s rights are denied throughout the legal process: police routinely hold juveniles in lock-up with adults during pre-trial investigations, putting them at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Furthermore, children and adolescents who are victims of crimes themselves – including those who have been trafficked for sex work or forced conscription – are at risk of prosecution when they should be protected. Adolescents in Iraq who have been displaced by the ongoing conflict are especially vulnerable to violence, arbitrary detention, harassment and violation of their rights sites due to suspicion of ISIL affiliation.

Programs: Juvenile Justice

  • HAI is one of the only organizations that provides services for detainees and victims of torture, specializing in juvenile care. HAI promotes adherence to the UN Convention Against Torture, working with the government of Iraq to ensure legal representation is provided to individuals who have been tortured by police or security forces, training local NGOs, and documenting the use of torture in jails.
  • HAI is working to strengthen the capacity and accountability of actors in the justice system at all levels, including judges, prosecutors, police forces, social workers, lawyers, and government to better serve the best interests of children.
  • HAI is also providing direct services, ensuring that detained youth have access to specialized mental health and psychosocial care, rehabilitation activities, and legal services and are protected from violence, psychosocial distress, exploitation, and abuse.

Impact: Juvenile Justice

  • HAI successfully advocated to open a juvenile detainment center near Sulaymaniyah, preventing juveniles from being placed in adult jails
  • In partnership with UNICEF, HAI developed an attorney practice manual for representing children and adolescents
  • HAI trained social workers in juvenile detention facilities to provide appropriate mental health and social services and how to identify and respond to cases of abuse and neglect