A beautiful spring day in Iraqi Kurdistan, Runak Faraj, chairwoman of Women’s Media and Education Centre (WMEC), one of Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organizations in Iraq, accompany me and my colleagues Bayan and Hadeel to the new government shelter in Suleimania.
In 2011, Iraqi Kurdistan adopted a domestic violence law that prohibits all forms of gender-based violence. According to the law, the Kurdistan Regional Government is responsible for to “provide shelter to the victims of domestic violence”. There is one government shelter in each governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan, three in total. The shelter in Suleimania has recently been moved to new premises at a secret location.
At the shelter, we meet with the newly recruited shelter manager. She explains that most of the women are referred to the shelter by a court for their own protection. The manager says that many of the women who stay at the shelter are under-aged, girls as young as 14.
Some of the women and girls have been living in the shelter for up to three years. The shelter cannot deny any woman who is referred by a court access to the shelter, and sometimes the shelter is overcrowded, resulting in five to ten women sharing the same bedroom. The manager says that the shelter is more like a prison: the women cannot communicate with the outside world, they are not allowed to have mobile phones, they cannot study and there are only very limited opportunities for activities such as sewing courses offered by a local NGO.
The women and girls in the shelter often turn desperate. Just before we arrived, a young woman attempted to harm herself and break free from the shelter. During our visit at the shelter, Runak and the WMEC psychologist are attending to the young woman. We learn that the woman claims that she tried to escape because the government social workers had forced her to meet with a family member who had physically ill-treated her. The manager confirms that the forced meeting with the abusive family member had taken place. According to her, the social workers in the shelter – who are employed by another government authority than the shelter – lack motivation for their work as well as appropriate training and support to carry out their work.
The manager says that she wishes that all of the women in the shelter would have a lawyer. It happens that women in the shelter are “forgotten” by the law enforcement authorities. They think that the case is solved after the woman has been referred to the shelter. When I ask about what happens after a woman has stayed at the shelter, the manager replies that there is no future for these women. The women have to solve the problems with their families. If they don’t they will “stay in the shelter forever”.
The following day, we travel with two young women activists from WMEC, Niaz Salih Fattah, a psychologist and Shno Omer Faraj, a social worker, from Suleimania to Rania, a small town close to the Iranian border. We meet with Kalthum Morad Ibrahim, the manager of the organization’s center in Rania.
Kalthum, who has worked with WMEC in Rania for the past ten years, explains that the situation for women in Rania is much more difficult than in bigger towns as Suleimania. Niaz and Shno agree.
According to the activists, everyone knows one another in Rania and, unlike in Suleimania, arranged marriages are still very common. Rania is very conservative and the tribe has a lot of influence over women’s life conditions. Kalthum tells that the tribal leaders are much more important than public officials and the domestic violence law is still not enforced. Many judges and lawyers do not believe in the law, and families use family and political ties, and in some cases even bribes, to influence the outcome of the case. Kalthum has not yet heard of a case in Rania where a perpetrator has been found guilty of domestic violence.
Every month the WMEC center in Rania receives women who are threatened or abused by their family members. Kalthum explains that they try their best to support the women, and they aim to find a legal solution. However, many times this is not possible and instead Kalthum, Niaz and Shno must act as mediators to try to “solve” the situation of threats and violence. The women activists explain that the mediation only involves male family members. The solution found is often not to the benefit of the women subject to gender-based violence, but many times the women prefer to try to mediate with the family as there are virtually no ways for the women to be protected. In some cases threatened women from Rania are referred to the shelter in Suleimania.
The male family members do not appreciate interference from outside, and especially not from women activists. Kalthoum has many times been threatened and she has received direct death threats from family members to the women she has been supporting
Leaving Rania, I am very impressed and humbled by the courage of the women activists who are putting themselves at risk while protecting women who are subject to violence and death threats. But my hope goes to that the advocacy work of the women activists will have effect so that the relatively progressive domestic violence legislation will be enforced in Iraqi Kurdistan and that the state will take its responsibility to protect the victims and persecute the perpetrators of gender-based violence.