* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
COVID-19 is spurring child marriage and domestic violence. Governments and NGOs must empower women legally and financially, to take control of their own lives
Ruwayda Mustafah is a Kurdish-born political strategist and campaigner based in the UK
Last year, I saw a little girl slapped by her father across the face. I was in a supermarket in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Region in Iraq. I was distraught by what was happening, but didn’t know how to react - there are no means for me to have reported the incident or even intervene, as the Iraqi constitution permits such behaviour.
Across the Kurdistan region, women and girls face gender-based violence - including sexual violence, domestic violence, so-called honour violence, child marriage, trafficking and female genital mutilation – from a young age and on a daily, increasingly violent basis.
Covid-19 has only served to exacerbate the situation, with Oxfam warning that Kurdish women across Iraq face “a heightened risk of domestic and gender-based violence” as a result of the pandemic.
In November, three men were arrested on suspicion of hanging their sister to death in Iraqi Kurdistan. Adultery, whether proven or just alleged, is often used as justification for violence against women, and Iraq’s penal code mitigates the offence of murder in the case of “honourable motives”.
Often, it is the abused who gets portrayed as the criminal. It is estimated there are more than 400,000 modern slaves in Iraq, including tens of thousands of victims of sex trafficking.
Many of these trafficked victims across Iraqi Kurdistan have been prosecuted for prostitution, with some sent to jail. When the justice system is so systemically broken, very few victims have confidence in the judiciary and are willing to speak up.
To tackle gender-based violence, governments need a clear, comprehensive and communicated strategy on the issue. To date, there is no clear understanding or policy between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments on how to reduce and eliminate gender-based violence whatsoever. Women’s groups have also failed to show and real visibility in leading change within the region, leaving a handful of NGOs to raise awareness of abuse.
However NGOs cannot carry the burden of tackling widespread, systemic abuse alone, and whilst NGOs are able to provide services in the major cities, such as helplines, awareness campaigns and shelters for domestic abuse survivors, there is close to zero support in the districts and villages.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of government to formulate policy and implement legislation as a means of tackling the scourge of gender-based violence.
Unfortunately, the Kurdistan government faces a myriad of issues, such as an inability to pay civil servants because of salaries held back by Baghdad, a decline in oil prices and lack of diversification of the economy. Women's issues are therefore relegated to the bottom of the priority list. Politicians have become very good at paying lip-service to tackling gender-based violence through convincing soundbites and nice-looking campaigns, but in reality little attention is ever paid to the issue.
In 2012, I started a child benefit campaign in Kurdistan, and had a young Kurdish woman, Leyla, accompany me to the visits in Erbil city to help me better understand local dynamics. I later learned that Leyla had set herself on fire; her mother and sister later explained that her husband had been abusive, and on her death-bed Leyla said she had only meant to scare her husband. The husband didn’t face jail – he simply paid his way out.
Visiting Erbil city last year, I met many women that, without government action, that little girl in the supermarket will one day become. It became so painfully clear that living with domestic violence was their everyday reality. “çi bikain” they would ask, meaning “what can we do?”.
In 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic hopefully settles, I call for real leadership from both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments on tackling gender-based violence: by empowering women, both legally and financially, to take control of their own lives; by reforming a corrupt and broken judicial system; by legislating to enshrine women’s rights in the rule of law; and by tackling the deep-rooted cultural attitudes that still enable men to continue to abuse with impunity.