In the centre of Karbala city, 100km southwest of Baghdad, 40 women and 30 children are confined to a small house, waiting for a passing aid worker or generous neighbour to deliver their next meal.
One of the women, Baraa, arrived at the house after fighters from the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIL) raided her home in al-Karmah, a city northeast of Fallujah in Anbar province. They killed her husband in front of her, saying it was because he used to be a police officer.
“After [rebel fighters] killed my husband, the army officers showed up and took his body. My family did not dare ask for his body, in case they got accused of being terrorists. What troubles me most is that I could not see him one last time, or give him the decent burial he deserves,” said Baraa “And I have to live with that.”
Almost immediately after, Baraa, along with 39 other women from the community, along with their children were forced to leave, walking 127km through fields until they reached the outskirts of Karbala. Many were still in their nightgowns and had not been allowed to take any of their possessions with them.
At the city’s checkpoint, military personnel refused to let the women enter, saying that they may be “agents” for the Islamic State. However, after a local judge offered to act as their “guarantor”, the women were eventually allowed in and sought refuge in an unoccupied house on the city’s periphery.
Baraa is one of the 1.2 million people who have been displaced in central and northern Iraq since January, many of whom have fled their homes with little or no resources.
She is also one of the growing number of women forced to flee without their male family members, as many have either joined the fighting or have been killed.
“These women, who’ve lost their husbands, brothers and sons, are leaving their homes with their young children, trying to escape the conflict,” Suzan Aref, director of the Women’s Empowerment Organisation in Erbil, told Al Jazeera. “But they don’t know where to go, who they should depend on or what to do, it’s an utterly desperate situation.”
Remarkably, UNICEF now estimates that approximately 250,000 children, accompanied by their mothers, have fled their homes across Iraq in the last week. “This is the scale of suffering we are actually looking at,” said Dr Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s Iraq representative, who has recently returned from a mission in Sinjar, a northwestern town near the Syrian border. “In one big complex at the stadium in Sinjar, we counted more than 1,100 children with their mothers.”
As more women in Iraq are left isolated, the threat of sexual violence against them is increasing, according to activists in the country.
“When the male member of a family is removed, women are left without protection and therefore, become more vulnerable to threats of trafficking, kidnap or sexual harassment,” Aref told Al Jazeera.
In areas of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State, particularly in Mosul, the group has issued edicts ordering women to “dress decently and wear wide clothes” and to “only go out [of the house] if needed”. While some reports have claimed these rules are not being strongly enforced, allegations of sexual assault and rape have increased.
While it is not possible to verify such claims, women’s rights experts working on Iraq claim these increased allegations are linked to the spreading influence of the Islamic State itself.
In Mosul, “One of the first things they did was go house to house and inform families that it was their religious duty to handover the unmarried women of the household,” said Yifat Susskind, executive director for MADRE.
Cases of rape in conflict have been reported worldwide. However, women’s rights experts and activists claim rebels subjugation of women is linked to their ideology.
And it is a problem that has not always been prevalent in Iraq, according to some activists. “If you had asked me if rape was common in Iraq last year, I would have said of course not, but now with [the Islamic State] making such huge gains, the story is changing,” said Yanar Mohammed, Director of The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI).
However, sexual harassment is not just confined to areas under control of the Islamic State. Women in Baghdad say that the increase in the number of armed men in the streets means that cases of intimidation and assault are on the rise.
“Men, young and old, with no training whatsoever, have been armed by the government, and are roaming the streets of Baghdad, harassing women and threatening to kidnap them,” said Zahra Radwan, Middle East and North Africa programme officer at Global Fund for Women. “We are talking about a society that already had problems of sexism, so when you add in the elements of men controlling the streets, it’s a new dimension of danger.”
Following the fall of Mosul to the rebel fighters on June 10, statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki led to the remobilisation of a number of Shia Muslim armed groups that had become largely inoperative since the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011.
Since then, at least 500,000 Iraqi men have volunteered to join these re-emerging militias, leaving women to become the heads of their households.
“Yes, women are being victimised, but they are also critical first responders in the crisis and are proving themselves to be formidable leaders at the community level,” Susskind told Al Jazeera.
However, despite this responsibility, the fact still remains that “many women in Iraq are economically dependent on the male members of their families, and they don’t have the skills or social security to find jobs”, according to Aref.
Many Iraqi activists complained about how little the government was doing to support and assist women in the country.
“Women don’t have any protection in Iraq, not on a social level, and not in the law,” Aref said. “Iraq needs equality for women in legislation but it also needs to remove the patriarchal mentality that exists in all of its governmental institutions.”
Notwithstanding the near-total collapse of the central government in Baghdad since the recent elections, many activists remain concerned about the future for women in Iraq. “When the conflict ends, that’s not when the problems end,” said Radwan.
“It’s the same old story, women end up bearing so much weight during the conflict, but then they are denied a place during the conflict resolution negotiations. It’s a humanitarian crisis now, but what about the future? We can’t let these women’s voices go unheard.”