OWFI’s team on the ground was a small grassroots activist collective in Baghdad who introduced the concept of women’s shelters to the community. This has become an expanding national network of safe shelters for women surviving/escaping domestic and state violence. OWFI currently runs ten houses in four major cities and many safe rooms across the country. OWFI has become the expert in protecting and sheltering vulnerable women, a focus that has remained at the heart of our work since founding. Our shelters have saved the lives of over 700 women, girls, and LGBTQ people.
In the summer of 2003 OWFI opened its first two safe rooms that sheltered 3 women. By 2012 OWFI had two shelters, the second of them for women who were ready to be reintegrated into social and professional life, get an education or employable skill training. Today, OWFI’S 10 shelters and many safe rooms offer many services to women including: medical services, psychosocial support, literacy classes, and skill building training to help women achieve financial independence.
We call our shelters “Houses”, each named after the woman who takes responsibility of running one. The houses provide safety, basic life needs, and importantly and very often newfound friends and family offering compassion and community care.
Sheltering work in Iraq is Illegal
In October 2017, an angry father raided OWFI's Baghdad headquarters where his daughter was sheltered. An estimated 30 - 40 police officers and Iraqi State security personnel accompanied him. When we asked them to present a search warrant, the officers failed to produce one, reaffirming the lawlessness under which Iraqi state institutions operate.
After OWFI refused to hand over the young woman, the policemen proceeded to kidnap one of our guards. They held him hostage and forced us to negotiate an exchange. It was a long and painful few hours in which many people's lives and safety were threatened, and OWFI's activists were traumatized.
OWFI relentlessly pressed for the daughter's safety and that her father not harm her before finally letting her be taken. OWFI continues to monitor and check on her continuously.
The Iraqi government's support of patriarchal practices — such as forcefully returning this woman back to her abusive family and to the threat of honour killing — seriously compromises the safety and lives of it's female citizens.
Women who are trapped in brothels are criminalized even when forced through trafficking, and the state offers no protection for brutalized women, women survivors of domestic violence and honour killing threats. In fact, the state is often complicit in these crimes and further jeopardizes the safety of women by placing many barriers against their access to justice and official documentation. For this reason, our shelters all operate “underground”; sometimes our staff themselves do not know the location of a particular shelter.
We take great measures to mitigate the risk of a revengeful family member finding a women who is seeking shelter with us, which endangers everyone at the house.