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Headwinds for law protecting women in Kurdistan region of Iraq

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Often, women who report their husbands for abuse are not able to support themselves financially and therefore have to return home. Because of this the police force and women's rights organisations try to work with the victims family and inform them of the law and the risks of being sentenced to prison if breaking it. Photo: Ester Sorri.

Often, women who report their husbands for abuse are not able to support themselves financially and therefore have to return home. Because of this the police force and women's rights organisations try to work with the victims family and inform them of the law and the risks of being sentenced to prison if breaking it. Photo: Ester Sorri.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq has one of Middle East’s most progressive laws on protection of women – but the implementation has been faltering. Now, women’s rights organisations are working to increase public awareness of the law.

“When I am to bake, there is no wood, my husband doesn’t bother to fetch any. When he comes home at night he blames me for all he can think of, and then he hits me. And he beats the children.”

The woman telling this has bruises on both hands and feet. The rest of her body is covered in a long dress. She lives in a village just an hour’s drive from Slemani in the eastern parts of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Here, houses and walls are simply constructed, built in stone and clay. From afar they melt into the brown hillside.

Only 18 families live here and for the battered woman there is no help available. To leave her family and the village community for a life alone somewhere else, is basically unthinkable. Women who get divorced often have to leave their children with their former husband or his mother.

Since this woman can’t read, she would have a hard time to support herself. Also, it’s very rare for someone to live alone and it’s not considered normal, regardless of it being a woman or a man. The security situation for women who live by themselves is often bad and they are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.

“Many of us are afraid of our husbands, but what can we do? We have nothing to put against them” says another woman from the same village.

More freedom

Still, women in Iraqi Kurdistan enjoy more freedom than in the rest of Iraq – to dress as they like and to move about outside of the home. They also have more opportunities to study and to work.

Nevertheless, public places are almost totally dominated by men, who spend much of their social life outdoors. Women rarely go out if they don’t have a specific reason to do so, and women who move about by themselves are often subjected to harassment and slander.

Violence against women is a major problem in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sometimes it’s the women’s husbands who are behind the violence, but it can also be a father, a brother, an uncle or another relative. Mostly, violence is used as a way to control a woman so she doesn’t put the family’s honor in danger.

Having sex outside of marriage, can be equal to writing your own death sentence. Recently, there have also been reports of young people being killed, because they had sent text messages to someone of the opposite sex. Other reasons for severe beatings or murder can be wanting to choose your own partner or asking your family for permission to divorce.

Consequence of  history

Some women activists argue that the violence is a consequence of Kurdistan’s and Iraq’s violent history. That violence has become a natural part of everyday life and therefore is close at hand even at home. Before Iraqi Kurdistan created a de facto autonomy from central Iraq, in 1991, women were killed every day, but this was all treated with silence. In despair, women committed suicide by setting themselves on fire. Others were burned by family members.

Since then much has happened and there has been progress. In 2011, Iraqi Kurdistan adopted a progressive law to protect women. Among other things, it prohibits domestic violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and attempts to hinder the education of girls.

But crimes committed for so-called reasons of honour are considered having mitigating circumstances. The penalty for murder can be as low as 6 months in prison, up to three years at the most, if honour can be invoked. Meanwhile, a woman was recently sentenced to death for killing her husband when she no longer could bare his daily violence against her.

Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of WMEC.

Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of WMEC.

Lobbying for 20 years

“The law is not perfect, but I’m glad we got it. We have carried out insistent lobbying for over 20 years to get this far, says Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of the organisation Women’s Media and Education Center, WMEC.

WMEC is working to spread knowledge of the law, both in society and within the judiciary. Their number one channel is their magazine Rewan, which deals with subjects concerning women’s rights, health and honour-related violence.

Rewan has a circulation of 4500 copies and is distributed to offices, public agencies and politicians.

Much of its content tackles the ever present severe violence that women are subjected to.

The editorial staff is also dedicated to highlight women who are politically active and to present them as role models.

Additionally, every issue features a page with articles on women’s health, like pregnancy and childbirth, which many women lack knowledge about.

“It is our belief that women are autonomous. Therefore we want to strengthen them” says Rewan’s Editor in Chief, Hana Shwan.

Trainings for police officers

WMEC has also organised trainings in the law on violence against women for over 1000 police officers and prosecutors.

”Even though they are working at the front line, not all police officers are familiar with this new legislation. Others just don’t accept it. They find it hard to abandon the idea that violence within the enclosed walls of a home is ok” says Project Organiser Robin Qasim.

Police investigations of domestic violence have often been sloppy and marked by a distrust of the victims. In addition, the victims have to endure a long and painful process in which they have to submit their testimony over and over again to different people. Several women’s organisations say that women are subjected to sexual abuse by the police when reporting on violence, and that judges call them prostitutes when their cases are processed in court.

Hope for better investigations

Many hope for a higher quality in these types of investigations, when the regional directorate working with violence against women takes over the responsibility next spring.

Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

“So far, these cases have been handled by the local police, while the directorate’s staff have had to make do with just following the process from a distance. We hope this change will make it easier for women to report violence. Here, they can be certain that their reports remain secret and the directorate’s staff, who are police officers, are all dressed in civilian clothing” says Major Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

Support from social worker

When a woman has reported that she is a victim of violence, she’s put in contact with a social worker, who supports her through the following process. It’s important that the woman feels that there is hope, since it often is impossible for her to see any solution to her problems.

“If it’s a minor offense, we call the woman’s family and try to mediate. The family must sign a contract saying that this crime will not be repeated, and after that we continue to keep an eye on them.”

If the woman’s life is deemed to be in danger, a judge may decide that she, and sometimes her children, should move to a shelter. There are three public shelters and one non-state one. According to Runak Faraj Raheem, the shelters are more like prisons than homes. The women receive all possible care, but they can not go outside and they have no contact with their families. Sometimes the solution can be to help them to a new life abroad. But most of the times, the women move back in with their family after the mediation.

Mediation not reliable

However, mediation is not a reliable solution. To return to the family means a continued risk to be subjected to threats and abuse. There are several known cases where women have been killed by their families after the authorities have intervened.

According to Chalar J Mohammed there is a trend of more women daring to report violence, probably because knowledge of the law is spreading and women are hoping to recieve help. But women’s organisations experiences show that state protection for these women still is extremely weak.

Annette Ulvenholm Wallqvist

This text was originally produced for The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation‘s news letter Fred i sikte.

Working for ban of guns in Iraqi Kurdistan

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Ronak Faraj Raheem, Director of Women's Media and Education Center, which was one of the organisations that participated in the campaign for a ban on guns in homes in Iraq. Photo: Ester Sorri.

Ronak Faraj Raheem, Director of Women's Media and Education Center, which was one of the organisations that participated in the campaign for a ban on guns in homes in Iraq. Photo: Ester Sorri.

Despite massive protests from the Iraqi women’s movement, last year a law was passed, making it legal for Iraqis to keep weapons in their homes. But women’s organisations in northern Iraq won’t give up. Now they are advocating for politicians in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to enforce a ban.

“In our village, almost all men have weapons at home. Some show off their guns to gain respect” says a woman from a mountain village situated a couple of hours drive outside of Slemani in Iraqi Kurdistan.

She and a couple of other women have come to a house used for common gatherings. The help organisation Wadi is visiting to talk about women’s health, but the conversation undulates back and forth and touches on violence and the presence of weapons.

“What can we do? The men have all the power and can do whatever they want with us. I’m often afraid, my husband has threatened me with his gun. I have no choice, I have to do what he wants” says a young woman, throwing her hands in the air in a gesture of defeat.

Common with guns at home

Having a gun or any kind of light weapon at home is very common in Iraq. According to statistics from Gunpolicy.org, based on research from the Sydney University among others, an estimated 34 percent of Iraqis own a gun. There is also an extensive illegal arms trade in the country.

This development has caused strong reactions among women’s organisations. They are concerned that more accessible weapons will lead to an increase in the deadly violence against women. The women’s rights organisation Warvin has warned about the risks, stating that most Iraqi women who get killed, are shot.

Counter campaign

When the Iraqi government a few years ago wanted to introduce a law allowing light weapons in homes, women’s organisations and concerned individuals joined forces in a counter campaign. The campaign called for a ban instead of a legalization and for the Iraqi government to gather all illegal weapons.

Despite the protests, in 2012 the new firearms legislation was introduced, making it legal for all individuals to own a gun and keep it at home. The only regulation is that it has to be registered with the police. At the same time the government urged all Iraqi households to keep a gun, to improve their safety.

“Question of mentality”

Women’s Media and Education Center, WMEC, participated in the campaign. However, the organisation’s director, Ronak Faraj Raheem, is not convinced that a ban on guns is the right way to go to prevent deadly violence against women. Mainly because she doensn’t see a direct link between firearms and honor killings.

“As an organisation, we are of course against keeping guns in homes. But I don’t believe that the act of killing someone is closer at hand just because it’s easier to get hold of a gun – first and foremost it’s a question of mentality. When it comes to defending family honour men use what’s avaliable; knives, strangulation, pistols. A gun in the home makes no bigger difference” she says.

Family honour important

In the Kurdistan region as well as throughout Iraq, family honour is an important issue and the social control is strong. A woman receiving a text message from an admirer or stating that she wants to choose her own partner, are reasons enough for her to be accused of bringing shame and dishonour upon her entire family. For this she may be punished by death and the act is often carried out by her father, husband, uncle or brother.

“We’re campaigning against weapons in the home, but more important still is that this mentality changes” says Ronak Faraj Raheem.

Lanja Abdulla, Warvin. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.

Lanja Abdulla, Warvin. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.

High hopes on a law

But Lanja Abdulla from Warvin has high hopes that a law banning guns in homes in Iraqi Kurdistan would reduce the deadly violence against women.

“Police officers, security personnel, members of political parties and ordinary people – everyone has a gun at home. Most killings of women are carried out with these weapons. If we got a ban, it would automatically reduce the number of women being killed” she says.

For example, with such a law, policemen and security agents would be forced to leave their weapons at work. According to Lanja Abdulla, that would make the men not being able to kill the women as easily in an aggressive domestic situation.

In the course of spring, Warvin has managed to get the five biggest political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to support a law on firearms. Now, the organisation will start working on drafting a bill.

Annette Ulvenholm Wallqvist, freelance journalist