Iraq’s 17-plus years of conflict since the U.S. invasion of 2003 has mostly obscured another fight behind the scenes: the struggle of Iraqi women for equality, protection from violence, and influence in government decision-making. Among the women leading that fight is Suzan Aref, a longtime women’s rights activist in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. In 2011, she discovered “a very strong tool” to support the cause: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security.

Adopted on this day in 2000, the resolution set out a mandate for U.N. member States to protect women and girls in conflict zones and to involve women in the full range of decision-making on issues of peace and security. In the two decades since, the measure has spun off 10 other related Security Council resolutions and 86 national action plans (NAPs) at country levels, each intended to implement the provisions of those Security Council resolutions in practical terms.

In April 2014, Iraq became the first country across the Middle East and North Africa to adopt such a plan, in large part because of civil society advocacy led by Aref, the founder and director of the Women Empowerment Organization. Born in Erbil as the daughter of an Iraqi government official, her family moved between postings around the country, including in Baghdad and Amara in the south. She learned to speak Arabic fluently and to move comfortably across Iraq’s multiple cultures, a skill that would prove useful in negotiating the tensions between the post-Saddam governments in Baghdad and Erbil to secure support for the NAP.

The promise of the five-year plan would be short-lived, however. By the spring of 2014, the tremors of ISIS were rumbling in Iraq, after the extremist group’s capture of Falluja in December 2013. In June, ISIS swept across the country’s north, capturing fully a third of Iraq’s territory and its second-largest city, Mosul. It took years, until December 2017, before the government of Iraq regained control over all its territory.

Still, Aref and her civil society colleagues persisted even during those years, winning small victories. The effort continues to be herculean amid Iraq’s internal turmoil — changes of government and tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil — and the comings and goings of U.S.-led coalition troops and the ebbs and flows of development assistance. Now, the difficulties are compounded by the pandemic.

“Women in Iraq have repeatedly been the victims of conflict,” the International Committee of the Red Cross notes. “They suffer displacement, rape, injury and death. At the same time, Iraqi women show remarkable resilience and courage in the face of adversity.”

Aref reflected on her advocacy for Resolution 1325 in an interview this week. The following has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q: What prompted you to start working on issues of women, peace, and security?

A: As a women’s organization, we tried to advocate for women’s rights and protection of women, but we couldn’t find receptive ears in government to listen to us. In October 2011, I was invited to an open house at the U.N. office to celebrate the anniversary of Resolution 1325. I heard them talking about the resolution and celebrating it, and I became pretty upset. I said, “Can you list the achievements of this resolution, what is happening on the ground that you can celebrate?” Even the women there said to me, “Please, be calm and quiet,” and I said, “Why do I have to be calm and quiet?” And then the head of UNAMI [the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq] came to me and said, “Now this is a woman activist.” He said, “This is a U.N. Security Council resolution, and we are happy about it. But the implementation is up to you. You, as a woman activist, and civil society have to support the implementation.”

So after that, I talked with colleagues, and we saw that this resolution says the same things that we have been demanding all along, and this is international law, so it is a very strong tool. Then we found out that the Iraqi government is supposed to develop a plan for implementation, so we put together our own plan for how to work with the government on this.

Q: How did that process unfold?

A: We had to find a donor to support us because this was new work, and we had to find other countries that had experience doing this. We didn’t find any other Middle East countries that were doing this, but we found Nepal had recently adopted their national action plan. We knew Nepal and Iraq were totally different contexts, but we just had to learn from them and then tailor that to our context in Iraq. We had a meeting in Jordan with civil society organizations who were involved in this in Nepal. It encouraged us to pursue our NAP. Once we developed our plan for advocating for the NAP in Baghdad and Erbil, the Norwegian Embassy agreed to support the project.

We planned out who we could approach in the governments, which of us had contacts in which offices and in parliaments, and we prepared everything so that we would have unified messages to the State actors. In 2012, we established a cross-sector task force for 1325 with members of Parliament, State actors from both governments, and civil society. The task force was half women and half men — most of the leadership of government offices were men, though there were more women in Parliament. The task force legal committee was headed by a woman, and the drafting and financial committees were headed by men. The task force was informal at first. In 2017, the government officially adopted it.

The first action plan was completed in November 2013 and submitted to the prime minister, and he approved it in April 2014. It was a point of pride for everyone – in the government, in the task force. As women’s organizations, we gained more credibility because, through our cooperation and partnership, there was a big achievement.

But then we got a big shock – the government removed the National Action Plan from the budget and they deleted two pillars of the plan, the legal pillar – the needed legislation – and the one on social and economic empowerment for women. And they didn’t tell us. They never went back to the task force, even to discuss it. So we had to resume our advocacy to question the government about this.

Q: How did the government explain what it had done?

A: This was the same time that ISIS came into Iraq, and the government said they had to deal with the costs and all the issues of that conflict and with all these IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees from Syria. They didn’t see women’s rights issues as a priority, and they couldn’t afford to budget for a five-year plan. So we reached an agreement to develop a one-year emergency plan [on women, peace, and security] that would respond to those immediate needs, and the government agreed to approve funding for that.

So we finished the emergency plan within three weeks, with a budget, and we submitted it to the prime minister through the minister of women’s affairs. Again, the prime minister approved the plan in May 2015, but he deleted the budget again. Instead, he ordered each ministry to implement their portions of the plan with their own budgets. The biggest problem was in Kurdistan – the government there said they weren’t getting the revenue they were due from Baghdad, so how could they implement this?

So we turned our advocacy to the international community, and appealed to them to support the Iraqi government on the implementation of the emergency plan. In Kurdistan, for example, the government wanted to close a women’s domestic violence shelter because they didn’t have money for it. Eventually, we were able to secure funding for the implementation of the emergency plan. After that, we worked with government closely to develop a master plan to carry out the emergency plan in 2016-2017 for 17 ministries and institutions – 11 in Baghdad and six in Kurdistan. [The plan called for steps such as participation of women in decision-making and elections, provision of health and psychosocial services to women victims of violence, and protection and empowerment of women IDPs, economic opportunities, and judicial reforms.]

Q: So there are lots of plans. What, concretely, do you see has changed in Iraq as a result of this work on UNSCR 1325?

During the period between 2012 and 2018, many things changed in a positive way. First of all, women, peace, and security became a topic at high-level discussions in government. Everyone is aware what women, peace, and security means, what 1325 means. There also has been a lot of training to build capacity within government because it was needed to work on these issues. Inside each ministry, there is a 1325 team that works on reforms required in the plans.

We also see an increase in the number of women who are getting positions in government, especially in the Ministries of the Interior and Defense in both Baghdad and Erbil, and in the judiciary. The percentage is still low, but this is a start; there is a change.

Civil society also gained the trust of government and access to officials, and has become part of the structure of developing, implementing, and monitoring. It was important that the cross-sector task force included men, not only women. It became an important channel of access for civil society to government, including in discussions of legal reforms to advance women’s rights.

The task force also strengthened relations between the governments in Baghdad and Erbil, because the meetings alternated between the capitals, and ministerial teams from each government worked together. Because they were high-level officials, they sometimes could help ease tensions on other sensitive issues, too.

Q: So where does this stand today?

A: We started work in 2019 on a new NAP, but we faced too many challenges. The biggest was the change in government and Parliament in Baghdad. So now we don’t have the same people in the cross-sector task force, and we don’t have the same political will. And now we have more divisions among civil society, because with success, everyone wants to claim credit. So now it is not like it was before.

So since 2019, there have been no meetings of the task force, and no relations between the teams in Baghdad and Erbil. The first NAP expired at the end of 2018, and we still don’t have a second NAP. And the space for civil society is shrinking.

So we are going backwards. Sometimes we just want to give up.

Q: What effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on all of this?

A: It has affected the advocacy and political participation of women, because we cannot meet and travel between Baghdad and Erbil, and you cannot make effective connections online as you can in person. Gender-based violence also has increased because women cannot get the services they need due to the lockdown. Women or their family members have also lost jobs. The biggest issue for women now is economic.

Q: What mistakes has the international community made in relation to supporting UNSCR 1325 in Iraq, and what should they do going forward?

A: The biggest mistake was to leave this to the U.N. agencies and ignore civil society. U.N. agencies always prioritize and listen to government, and civil society like women’s organizations are at a lower level, and no one listens to them. It should be the opposite – they should strengthen local women’s organizations and make sure they are in all the meetings and that their voices are heard in all decisions.

The international community should press the government on 1325 and on involving civil society. And they should support civil society in monitoring and helping on implementation.

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: The government officials do have some experience doing this now and they want to do it on their own, so we will let them do it. We will monitor and maybe implement some elements directly for women. And we will work on raising awareness. We are doing what we can do. But the door is not open like it was before.

IMAGE: Suzan Aref, founder and director of Women Empowerment Organization in Iraq discusses a national report on implementation of the country’s first national action plan on women, peace and security, pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, at the United Nations in January 2019.