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Iraqi Kurdistan Fails to Address Violence Against Women

Violence, self-immolation and suicide continue to plague the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s women, with a shortage of civic institutions to deal with these issues.
Kurdish women walk past a truck that was hit in the 1988 chemical attack at the memorial site for victims of the attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja, near Sulaimaniya, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad, March 16, 2013. Iraqi Kurds on Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the chemical attack on the northern Iraqi city of Halabja by Saddam Hussein's forces. Up to 5,000 people may have been killed by chemical gas, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps during the 1988 Anfal

Not a day passes by without hearing about the death of a woman or the suicide of another, whether by self immolation or other methods. These women resort to suicide to save themselves from squalid living conditions, to wash away shame or as a result of the customs and traditions prevailing in the province and by which Kurdish society still abides.

Perhaps the most prominent of these cases is what was published on July 11 in Kurdish media outlets about the bodies of a 14-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy found near a village in Sulaimaniyah. The young couple had been shot by their parents for having fled their homes, following the disclosure of their whirlwind romance. The two youngsters had decided to escape and get married despite the their parents' objection.

There are many other cases of female victims of homicides and suicides. The majority of these incidents involve self-immolation.

According to statistics on violence against women released by the general directorate, affiliated with the Interior Ministry in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the three provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk witnessed 37 cases of murder and suicide among women between January and May 2013, in addition to 100 cases of self-immolation. These numbers do not include dozens of cases of sexual assault and hundreds of women who registered complaints with governmental departments to follow up on issues related to violence against women. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor on July 11 in Erbil, Korda Omar, the head of the general directorate to address violence against women, expressed her concern about these figures. She asserted that the directorate is unable to face violence against women on its own and thus other parties, such as police institutions and civil-society organizations, must participate in this task.

She added, “We are publishing these statistics on a monthly basis and all our efforts are exerted to reduce violence. Yet this is not only the mission of the departments affiliated with us, it is also the mission of police institutions, judges and civil-society organizations.”

“These figures on violence against women are a source of concern, but we must work together to reduce them,” she noted. Furthermore, Omar said that the mission of these departments has changed from tracking violence to addressing it, especially after the Kurdistan parliament enacted the domestic-violence law in 2011.

In 2007, the Interior Ministry in the Kurdistan Region decided to establish departments to follow up on issues related to violence against women, after the region experienced a remarkable surge in cases of murder and suicide among women throughout the region's cities.

According to Omar, six departments and 26 offices are now open throughout the Kurdistan Region to address violence against women.

It seems that this change in the mission of these departments requires developing the capacities of their staff and training them on how to deal with issues related to violence against women, especially in a conservative society such as that of the Kurdistan Region.

Specialists and parties concerned with cases of violence against women confirm that the civil servants in these departments need training and experience in this field.

Abdullah Khaylani, the general director of the Kurdistan Regional Police, told Al-Monitor on July 12, “Investigation procedures in cases of violence against women are underway, some in accordance with the relevant section of the penal code and others in accordance with the domestic-violence law. These crimes are of a special nature, in particular for the investigating judges, detectives and even police members. I think they must take courses since this is a specialization in itself and these crimes are of a special nature.”

In 2011, the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament issued a domestic violence law in the Kurdistan Region. The second article of the law states: "It is prohibited for any person associated with a family to commit violence — whether physical, sexual or psychological — within the family."

According to the law, the following acts fall within the category of domestic violence: "Forced marriage, marriage by exchange, child marriage, marriage in exchange for blood money, non-consensual divorce, ending kinship relations, a husband forcing his wife to practice prostitution, female circumcision and suicide as a result of domestic violence."

Haza Sulaiman, the vice-chair of the Women and Family Committee in the Kurdistan parliament, said that the application of the law has been delayed and it is not being applied as required. She said that the law requires amendments, considering the difficulty of applying it.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on July 12, she said, "The law was not implemented on time. Now, although it’s being implemented, it has not stopped violence as required, because Kurdish society has complex customs and traditions, including issues related to honor killings."

She added, "Legally, we do not have a legal vacuum. However, there are issues related to educating people and raising awareness within families. Several institutions are involved in the implementation of this law. I think that educating families on how individuals behave with each other would have a significant effect in reducing this violence."

Lajna Abdullah, the director of the Warifeen Institute for the Defense of Women's Affairs, stressed in a statement to Al-Monitor on July 12 the importance of these directorates having shifted their work from follow-up to confrontation. She said, "It is a positive point, because one of the previous weaknesses of these directorates was that their work was only oriented toward follow-up, while their missions contradicted the names of the directorates."

She noted, "In most cases, women who are subjected to violence in Kurdistan do not go to the police due to considerations relating to customs and traditions in Kurdish society." She pointed out that "They can resort to these directorates because they are not police."

Abdullah added, "Most women cannot under any circumstances go to the police because they have special cases that should be dealt with cautiously. We have seen many cases in which women refused to go to the police for some reason."

She emphasized the need to prepare the officers working in these directorates on how to deal with such cases.

Feminist writer and journalist Taman Shaker described [honor] killings targeting women as “love killings.” Speaking to Al-Monitor on July 12, she said, "We cannot express our feelings and emotions due to [social pressure]. We always hide any feelings of love because our society considers love to be shameful and [associated with] sexual relations."

She added, "We are still ignorant and do not know anything about love. When a father kills his daughter because she got married to someone she loved, he would be a love killer. It seems that in our society, a girl has to marry malice and hatred. And if she is killed, she is killed because of love."

The KRG started to pay attention to violence against women about ten years ago. It began by amending some laws and considering homicides committed against women under the pretext of honor as "intentional killings whose perpetrators are punished with tough sentences."

The amendment made by the Kurdistan parliament in 2002 to the Iraqi Penal Law No. 111 of 1969, which considered honor killings "intentional murder," was the first step initiated in this direction.

Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print and radio, he has published in local and international media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).

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