BAGHDAD Women and children have been hit especially hard in Iraq's refugee crisis, often forced to beg and in some cases turn to prostitution to provide for their families because so many men have been killed, according to a new report.
A biannual regional survey by the International Organization for Migration paints a bleak picture of Iraq's estimated 2.8 million internally displaced people, or IDPs. They often face eviction threats and insufficient access to food, clean water and health care despite recent security gains, according to the report, released Friday.
But women and children who have been forced to flee their homes are particularly vulnerable because the men in the family have often been killed or abandoned them in a conservative Islamic society that generally doesn't value women in the workplace.
Women make up about half of the displaced population, surpassing the number of men in some provinces, including Baghdad. But they face difficulties finding employment and often are isolated because of their gender, it said.
Displaced children, meanwhile, have suffered from malnutrition and skin diseases due to a lack of clean water and sanitation, the report said. They also frequently lack access to education because they must work or beg on the streets instead of going to school.
"Many families have female heads of household, bringing a unique set of challenges," the IOM said in the report.
Monitors in the provinces of Baghdad and Diyala "have observed large numbers of families with both widows and orphans, both of whom have many difficulties finding jobs, obtaining food, or receiving aid from local authorities and humanitarian organizations," according to the Geneva-based organization.
Observers in the Anbar province town of Qaim near the Syrian border also reported children begging in the streets while women collected garbage to resell for recycling, the report added.
Widows traditionally have been cared for by their late husband's family in Iraq, but relatives have been overwhelmed because so many people have been killed in recent years.
Lawmaker Samira al-Moussawi, the head of the Iraqi parliament's committee on children and women, acknowledged a limited number of cases of prostitution and begging but said most female refugees worked or relied on the government and aid organizations.
"There are a lot of displaced widows and other women. The women are given financial aid and food," said al-Moussawi, who was not connected to the report. "These moves don't solve the problem, but they ease the suffering of the displaced people."
In northern Iraq, the IOM said many women have been subjected to violence, particularly those who fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
"It is estimated that hundreds of IDP women in the Kurdistan region are subject to sexual abuse and domestic violence," the report said. "Many of these are forced into prostitution, sometimes by their own loved ones."
It also said many displaced children in the area are unable to go to school because they don't speak Kurdish and are not able to transfer their documents from their place of origin.
Monitors observed a significant increase in the number of displaced children working in the streets selling cigarettes and tissues at traffic lights or offering to polish shoes.
Women and children also faced harsh conditions in the northern provinces of Tamim, Ninevah and Salahuddin, volatile areas in which the levels of violence have been slower to decline than elsewhere in the country.
Displaced women in Kirkuk, the capital of Tamim province, have been forced into prostitution, often by relatives, the report said, adding that others were forced to marry much older men from the host community.
The report also pointed to a lack of specialized health care for women leading to a high number of premature labor, miscarriages and infant deaths in the mainly Shiite southern provinces of Maysan, Wassit and Qadasiyah.