Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
Iraqi Kurdistan frequently finds itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. However, amidst sectarianism, conflict, and fundamentalist violence, the staff of Warvin Foundation for Women’s Issues (WFWI) have continued undeterred with their project to support victims of domestic violence. They have gone, meticulously, successfully, setting up a project that monitors and evaluates the current set-up of women’s shelter, and lobbies the government and stakeholders to bring about an improvement.
In fact, the success of the project is the first of its kind; Warvin has been a pioneer in gaining access to these shelters to interview both the workers and the refugees, in establishing a network of allies with other women’s organizations, and gaining a commitment from high-level government employees to legislate a reform to the way the shelters are run.
This project, carried out in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in the three governorates of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, is aimed at the young women who face domestic violence and flee their families for shelter, and are often between the ages of 13 to 18 (Iraq State Party Report to CEDAW 2013). It is titled “Strengthening the Capacity of Women Leaders to Protect Survivors of Gender-Based and Domestic Violence in Public Shelters”, and does exactly what it says.
The climate in Kurdistan and Iraq for women is not very welcoming. ‘Honor’ killings, for example, are going from bad to worse; shelter workers often perpetrate the victim blaming by explaining the case of domestic violence as something the woman brought upon herself, due to her own ‘transgressions’, or perceived actions.
In 2013 alone, there were 1,746 deaths of women due to burning, shooting or suffocations—from these women’s’ own fathers or older sons of the family, and often with the participation or consent of her mother and/or sister. These killings are often masked as suicides, which makes it difficult to come up with an exact statistic; indeed, the discrepancy between the figures from the Institute for Forensic Medicine in the Kurdistan Region and the official statistics from the General Directorate of Combatting Violence Against Women of the Kurdistan Regional Government is huge; where the first reported 1,746, the second reported 50 killings and 36 suicides.
What makes the situation worse is that affected women they are under immense pressure, often including threats of violence, not to report any crime, as this could bring shame to the family. If they decide to risk it either way, they can find themselves facing death. So, women who try to escape from an abusive husband for example, would be threatened with death, or face slanderous counter-charges such as adultery.
This then means that women who have been admitted to one of the shelters for domestic violence can, in view of their violators, be seen to have committed a double transgression. The first transgression is the reason for the violence or threats themselves—the reason she ‘asked for it.’ The second is her daring to seek outside assistance. This climate keeps women locked in a cycle of their own, too afraid to ask for help, too helpless to get change.
And still, even when women do manage to get assistance, often through a court mandate, and find refuge in a shelter, they do not escape the dominating patriarchal culture of shame.
This ‘shaming’ also permeates life in the shelter as well, where the woman goes for supposed protection. Even those authorities assigned to help survivors – including shelter staff and management - are often guilty of victim-blaming’: it is the woman’s own ‘inappropriate’ actions in transgressing social norms that often are considered to be the explanation for the violence.
These shelters, then, make it clear that they are doing little to ‘shelter’ women; those who are literally running for their lives come seeking warmth and protection but face the sort of isolation that is similar to prisons, given neither counselling nor skills. Often, they see no other option than to simply return to the families they came running from; the overcrowding, the isolation, and the authorities’ focus on simply ‘resolving’ a case rather than taking the time and understand and empathize leave women feeling worse than when they started.
In recent years, the Kurdistan Regional Government has made laudable reforms. ‘Honor’ is now not seen as a mitigating factor in violent crimes, and there is a specific law on domestic violence. However, as seen above, little attention has been paid to the lack of access to effective protection to those women who have survived domestic violence.
The need to improve protection in shelters in Iraq has also been recognized by the UN. The law on domestic violence states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs shall provide shelter to all women victims of violence, but these ‘shelters’ are often compared to detention centers. The don’t have sufficient resources to provide counselling, education, or training to victims of violence (Working Together to Address Violence against Women and Girls in Iraqi Kurdistan, IRC 2013). The only ‘resolutions’ to such these cases are reconciling with the family that a girl will not be killed upon her return. It’s not much of a resolution, it’s deeply problematic, and worse, it sometimes is not followed through on.
In the first three months of 2014 alone, three women who had been staying in shelters have been murdered after having re-joined their families, two in the governorate of Sulaymaniyah and one in Erbil.
These negotiations only reinforce the patriarchal perception of women lacking autonomy, reducing them to objects of mediation in an interaction between the (male) family members and the state. Also, these ‘agreements’ are not to be trusted, which then fundamentally undermine the shelters’ place as protector of a woman’s safety and security. In general, nothing is even done to alleviate the risks that these women face upon return, since shelters fail to follow up and in other ways monitor the situation of women who have left the shelters.
This project, then, is an attempt to turn these trends around, and to engage the capacities of women stakeholders with obligations, or potential, to protect women survivors in the shelters.
The first step of the project involved visiting five shelters in the Kurdistan Region. During these visits, a researcher interviewed women in the shelters about their experiences prior to being admitted, how they viewed their stay in the shelter, what problems they faced, what more they needed. The researchers also asked about how the women viewed the responsibilities of the various stakeholders, and what their aspirations for the future were.
This visit was followed by three one-day consultations with 15 stakeholders, which was the second step. These stakeholders included management/staff of the shelters, judge, judicial investigators and representatives of the general directorate on violence against women. This consultation would have as a primary purpose to identify gaps in protection and services that would be discussed in more depth at the closing conference, and a secondary purpose to sensitize those with power on the main problems that women have faced in these shelters.
The consultation meeting, held in Sulaymaniyah, identified key weaknesses in the present shelter system. The participants identified how late the stakeholders’ response was to most cases, and how haphazard the investigation. They pointed out the lack of a specialized legal procedure for the shelter for new case registrations. They also pointed out the problem with courts carrying out investigations in victims’ home areas, as this invites stigma and other issues; most families would prefer court investigations somewhere further away.
The consultation also identified the need for a legal formal procedure to protect cases of domestic violence, how to deal with cases where there is a complete lack of nearby shelters, how to destigmatize shelters, and how to approach help in a way that affects the whole family, not just the woman herself. It discussed how to engage the media in helping break negative social stigma around shelters, the need to improve record-keeping for individual cases, and the formulation of a voluntary committee that would approach the Directorate of Social Workers and the Council of Ministries and with a draft on reforms for the shelter system.
This was the third step, to collating the information and identify the gaps in protection and services, and come up with ways to address them.
The fourth and penultimate step was to host a one-day conference inviting representatives of the government, civil society, media, the participants from the consultation and other stakeholders. This conference raised further awareness on the matter, discussing the identified gaps and possible ways of addressing them.
WFWI resolved to conduct regular and thorough follow-ups on the participants in the consultations, interviewing them after three months to see if they had undertaken any actions.
The fifth step had WFWI having a meeting with the government and submitting a petition/resolution, with the hope of winning some form of commitment from the government to take action to improve protection.
This recommendation was created for the first time ever, and brought to the government’s attention. WFWI was able to set up a meeting with high-level government authorities where the findings were submitted, and to draw a promise for legislative change.
Warvin’s project had three aims:
1. To gain access to the shelters in order to conduct surveys with both the occupants and the workers present
2. To establish a network of allies who would dedicate themselves to helping promote this goal
3. To gain a commitment from government authorities to reform the shelters.
They were, through the help of WELDD, able to achieve all three outcomes!
A few months ago, we ran the Butterfly Effect series which featured stories of personal change from women who had participated in the WELDD project. Some included participants of this project; Fozia*, who recognized the sheer need for improvement; Mariam*, who was inspired after her stay to start her life over again; Saira*, who realized how big her dreams are, and how much she wants to go after them; Aalia*, a social worker, who saw the need for personal counselling for all survivors of domestic violence.
For more information on Warvin Foundation for Women’s Issues, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/warvinmalpar/?fref=ts