ERBIL, Iraq – “I was so desperate, I had lost hope. Committing suicide seemed the only escape from the abuse, back then,” Fatima* said in an interview earlier this month. “I didn’t know how to handle the pain.”
A mother of eight, Fatima has been married for about two decades. “For the first nine years of marriage, my husband was kind and loving,” she told UNFPA. “We used to go out, laugh together and do activities as a couple.
However, our life turned upside down after we had a falling-out with his brother.”
Fatima’s brother-in-law wanted her and her husband to vacate the house they were renting from him. The dispute grew heated, and the brother-in-law berated her, calling her a woman with no honour. He even threw her out of the house, though she later returned.
After that, her relationship with her husband changed. He became abusive, she said.
“I never expected that my loving husband could lay a hand on me. It took one disagreement with his family to destroy the beautiful nest we had built together.”
Not long after, she became pregnant.
“I was happy to have another child. My husband’s reaction, however, wasn’t a positive one. He refused to support my pregnancy needs, buy baby clothes or spend any money,” she said. She relied on financial support from her neighbours to get by.
Burned from head to toe
Stories like Fatima’s are tragically commonplace. According to a 2006-2007 family health survey, one in five women in Iraq experience physical violence, and nearly 14 per cent experience violence during pregnancy.
And this violence is widely accepted. A 2006 survey found that 59 per cent of Iraqi women believe wife beating can be justified.
The constant abuse drove Fatima to self-harm.
“I felt so desperate. I did not have a dime to spend on my children. In a moment of despair, I threatened to self-immolate. He smirked at me and told me to do it.”
Fatima’s left side was burned from head to toe. Her husband refused pay for her treatment. Her family stepped in to pay.
Over time, their relationship improved, and she became pregnant again.
“I don’t know what triggered it, but during my pregnancy my husband started physically abusing me,” she recounted. “He would slap me on the face and beat me on a daily basis. He would even use a wooden bat or any home appliance he could get his hands on.”
Unable to leave
Fatima thought about leaving her husband, but divorces are often difficult to obtain, and Fatima feared losing access to her children. “My children rely on me to protect and support them and give them the security and stability that every child deserves,” she said.
Eventually, a neighbour introduced her to the UNFPA-supported Women’s Centre in Bnaslawa. She was reluctant to go, afraid of being judged.
When she finally visited the centre, it was to attend a sewing course. The social workers welcomed her, but did not pressure her into sharing her story.
“They gave me time to trust them,” Fatima said. After a while, she told them what she was going through.
They offered her support and counselling. “What I like the most is that they didn’t judge me for staying,” she said.
Today, she is still married to her husband, but she visits the centre often for support.
“Before I joined, I was lonely, I was physically ill and mentally exhausted,” she said. “The centre really changed my life.”
– Salwa Moussa
- Name changed for privacy and protection