Violence against women in Iraqi-Kurdistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
»If I would have not killed her, everyone would insult me and ask why I am not defending my family's honour. Killing men is shameful, killing women is respected.«

The testimony was given by a man who recently murdered his daughter in law. In colaboration with others, he had forced his victim, Gulstan, who was just behind her teen ages, into a field close to their village and shot her with a rifle from close distance into her face. The testimony was neither given in custody nor during interogation. Professionals from one of the women centers in Iraqi-Kurdistan visited the village after having learned of the »honour killing« case and interviewed the familiy members. Even though he openly confessed to have murdered his daughter in law, no efforts were made to put the man on trial. The reason is simple: Gulstan »dishonoured« her family by trying to escape from a forced marriage. Additional rumours accused her of having a sexual relation to another man. Thus, her assassination is regarded as legitimate by the villagers.

Cases like Gulstan's are not unusual in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Eventhough, so called »honour-crimes« are regarded as statutory offence, authorities let perpetrators oftenly pass without questioning. About 200 of cases of murdering women and girls due to reasons of »honour« have been documented by the Rewan Women's Center in Suleymaniyah in three years only. Women and girls have been shot, strangled or drowned mainly because they were said to have sexual relations or »dishonoured« the family in another way. The real number of casualties is expected to be much higher. Especially in rural areas, where tribal and primordial belonging still is the most important essential tie, »honour killings« are widely regarded as »necessary« to secure a family's social status.

»Honour crimes« do not solely respond on sexual activities, but are more likely designed to sanction any kind of »insubordination« of women and girls. In most cases, the »sexual activities«, which the women are punished for, did merely take place in the phantasy of male relatives than in reality. Women and girls are rather being murdered for refusing to fulfill demands - like forced marriage - or fleeing from violent husbands. At the core, honour crimes arise from conflict between women and girls who claim to selfdetermine specific aspects of their life and their male dominated family or local community. Self-determination principally stands in stark contrast to the family codex of moral and decency in Iraq.

A rigid moral code, deeply rooted in patriarchal societal structures, must be regarded as one of the main reasons for the violence against women. This code is based on an understanding, that defines women as property of their male relatives. Consequently, if the property is being hurd, the male owner is hurd as well. Women loose their value if they do not subordinate to their role or if their decency is being questioned in public. Killing them is - following this understanding - only a consequence from their devaluation.

But, despite its »traditional« roots, the phenomenon of »honour killings« is not a result of culture or traditions only. Poverty, devastated living standards and a lack of education play an important role. Additionally, most Iraqi families have experienced extreme violence in the past. A high percentage of Iraqis is severely psychologically affected - if not traumatized - by the experiences of flight, war and oppression. War, the killing and deportation of family members and flight did not only result in an increased importance of primordial structures but lead at the same time to a distortion of family structures. The experiences made with a violent society under Saddam Husseins dictatorship is being put forward (abgewälzt) regularly to the weakest members of the family, i.e. women and girls. Usually, violent acts against women and girls only constitute the climax of a lasting crisis, that inflicted the family's life long before. In most cases, professional aid that could help avoiding the explosion of violence, is not available - mainly because psychological problems are regarded as »shameful« and »dishonouring« and are therefore kept in secret.

Not a private matter

Male violence against women is not a private matter. The dramatic increase of recorded »honour killing« cases in Iraq during the 1990s shows that the »private« understanding of honour is directly corresponding to the overall political and societal conditions. UNIFEM reports that more than 4,000 women and girls have become victims of »honour killing« during that period. The increase followed a presidential degree in 1990 legalizing many kinds of violence against women up to murder if they result from »moral misbehaviour of women«. Regularly women were included into interrogations against male family members. In custody, women faced systematic humiliation, torture and rape. The role women played in the official propaganda in Iraq was - as the governmental paper »al-Jumhurriya« depicted it in 1991 - that of a »mother breading sons and teaching them to fight and die as a hero«. Women were not even allowed to travel without being accompanied by male relatives. In contrast to governmental statements under Saddam Hussein, claiming to guarantee gender equality and to protect women from discrimination, women and girls were cut off from many fundamental rights in Iraq. Saddams system of injustice established a legal power of disposition of men over their female relatives.

Even though women constitute around 60 % of Iraq's entire population, they were chronically underrepresented in administration, economy and government. Women suffered most und economic and social deprivation, illiteracy rates are extremely high. Around 40 % of the female population in Iraq are, following a study of the World Bank, illiterates. Only 35 % of the Iraqi girls attended a public school before the Iraq war in 2003. Women who have lost their husbands in one of Iraq's wars or in governmental campaigns against the civil population bear the whole responsibility for their families while they usually do not have access to work and income. Around 11 % of Iraqs households are lead by women (UNDP - Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004). Especially in rural areas, women play a substantial role in securing living conditions while at the same time, women are cut off from the labour market in most areas. Due to low educational standards career opportunities outside the informal labour force of unrewarded work in family owned enterprises and farms are specifically low. UNDP stated before the war, that not more than 10 % of Iraq's women were involved in economical activities. UNDP's Human Development Report listed Iraq in 2002 on rank 126 out of 174 regarding gender equality and women's rights. Still, women are sidelined in »traditional« local structures and excluded from decision making processes. Especially in rural areas, women are restricted in their movement and cut off from education. Forced marriage and FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) are still practiced in rural areas.

After the regime change in 2003, new provisions concerning women came into practice. The Transitional Administrative Law from March 2004 demands legal equality (Art. 12) and gender-specific language (Art. 1 B), prohibits gender-based discrimination (Art. 12, 20 B) and installs a quota system for the National Assembly (Art. 20). But still the grave problems women face in Iraq are not object of public debate. The development of a women's lobby is only just at the beginning. Most women's activists are unexperienced in leading and institution-building, they lack practical skills as well as an effective network. Although, women's activists became more visible in public life as they are officially represented in Governing Council, the majority of Iraq's women are still excluded from decision making processes. Additionally, new islamist movements try to take control in the communities and impose rigid and strict regulations on women.

Programming & Experience

WADI's programme in Northern Iraq

For more than a decade WADI is supporting development programmes in Northern Iraq by promoting and encouraging civil and democratic structures at place: With gender-mainstreaming programmes for women, educational projects and literacy campaigns, rehabilitation for long-term prisoners, projects for displaced persons and children. More than 5,000 women attended literacy classes since the Mid 1990's, women and girls from violent families find shelter and care in three centres for women in distress. In rural areas, women are being provided with mobile health and social services and being trained in Women's Rights. WADI supports local initiatives with training. Vocational training and computer workshops are provided to women in remote areas. An independent community radio station - the new voice - for women and youngsters starts broadcasting this year.

Centres for Women in Distress

The basic idea of the centres for women in distress is to help the large number of women who are suffering from serious social or psychological problems. This group includes mostly women who became first homeless and then hopeless due to war and displacement that affected the whole Kurdish society since the Anfal-Campaign in 1988. The project also takes care of street women who very easily become targets of violence committed by men. All women - unaware of ethnical or confessional belonging, social status or political affiliation -- can find protection at the centres. The centres provide food and accommodation as well as psychological treatment, social assistance and legal aid. Women are free to stay in the centre until their problems are solved and a psychological stabilisation has been reached. The main objective of the centre is to reintegrate the women in the society while saving their dignity.

Inside the centres, a variety of workshops and courses are offered to the women ranging from therapeutic sessions and medical care to literacy and vocational training courses. A mediation programme assists women who are returning to their families and supports them in finding long-term solutions.

The centres have been established in close co-operation with women's groups and local authorities. In practice, the centres are run by the centres staff independently, while WADI is responsible for monitoring the work. Besides, WADI provides financial means and logistic infrastructures (cars, offices, computer).

Centres have been established in Suleymaniyah (NAWA-Centre) and Arbil (Khanzad-Centre). A third centre, situated in Mosul, was forced to stop working due to the continuous violence and threats by Islamists. More than 600 women have been treated in the NAWA Centre (Suleymaniah) alone.

Cases from the centres

F., 22 years old, comes from Qala Dize. She was the first to seek help in the Khanzad Home (Arbil). F. has a four year old daughter who attended her when she entered the centres programme. Both were on the run from male relatives who threaten to kill them for more than five years. F.s sad story began in 1997, when she was a 16 year old girl. Her older brother intended to marry a girl from the neighbourhood. F. was part of the agreement over the marriage. She was forced to marry a nearly 60 years old uncle of her sister-in-law. When she later gave birth to a daughter (instead of a boy), her husband began to beat and abuse her. F. decided to run away. As a retribution for the »shame« F. has brought over her family, her brother tried to kill her and her daughter. F. and her daughter, who escaped to Arbil, stayed for three years inside a prison to protect them from their relatives. F. was transferred to Khanzad Home in 2002. Since then, the staff is trying to negotiate with her family. Without success - her husband does not agree to a dissolution of their marriage, her brother dos not give up his plans to kill her. Recently, F. is trying to enforce a divorce with the support of a lawyer. Afterwards, the centres team will try to find a place somnewhere else in the country for her and her daughter to live.

C. 23 years old. C. grew up in a village close to the city of Rania. In January 2003 she came to Khanzad Home after being protected in prison for eight months. In June 2002, C. was attacked by frieds of her father, beaten and raped. C. just barely survived the attack. But in the eyes of her relatives, C. »dishonoured« the family by being raped. Her father and her brother decided to kill her to »restore the family's honour«. A neighbour helped C. to escape. C. was brought to a prison in the city of Suleymaniah. In January 2003, C. was transferred to Khanzad home. After long-drawn-out negotiations, her family gave up the plan to kill her - except of one uncle, who demands a financial compensation for this »act of generosity«. A criminal procedure has been initiated against the attackers with the help of Khanzad. For the time being, C. will stay in the centre.

Female Mobile Teams

WADI is supporting Female Mobile Teams (FMT) in Suleymaniah, Kirkuk Arbil and Mosul Governorate as well as in Dyala. These teams contain of medical assistants, social workers and supervisors. Until April 2003, the FMT served more than 40,000 women and children. On a daily base, the FMT visit women and children in different areas, offer basic health services, conduct awareness courses, visit women, who suffer from distress and -- if needed -- bring them to one of the centres. Different researches and questionnaires about female victims of Ba'thism, Anfal widows and female led families were conducted.

One of the Mobile Teams focus on the Hawraman Area near Halabja, which until recently was controlled by the Taliban like Ansar al-Islam Group, whose rule deprived women from any fundamental rights.

In Kirkuk, the FMT are multi-ethnical to serve the mutual Kurdish-Arabic-Turkmen understanding. Their work is also part of the preparation to establish women centres and shelters both in Kirkuk and Arbil in Co-operation with the Women's Organizations and the existing shelters. Later a network of shelters and centres should be established in other parts of Iraq too.

The FTMs are also focussing on combating Female Genital Mutilation and all kinds of Violence against Women.


Any improvement of women's situation requires a higher social status of women and grils inside their communities. The right to education is crucial for any kind of gender mainstreaming. Without a better education, women will stay excluded from public life. For a decade, WADI supports literacy courses for women. Inside the women's centres, that have been established in several cities, courses are being held on social issues, health care, family planning and women's rights. Vocational training on computers and internet is offered in several centres. WADI established a women's library and Internetcafés for women. In the Hawraman region, WADI supports the establishment of an independent community radio for women and youngsters.

Self-confident women and girls, who know their rights, can read and write, and have access to free information, children and youngsters who experience care and education instead of indoctrination and frustration, are a most effective »weapon« against violence and discrimination.