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Helping women in Iraqi Kurdistan: The IRC training police to provide better legal protection
March 8, 2012
By Renata Rendon
Police officers in Iraqi Kurdistan attending IRC women's awareness training
The meetings were mentally draining, and the photographic evidence was often so graphic, that I had to turn away. The images of beaten women were too much to bear.
And it wasn’t only photographs. While waiting to interview a judge, I saw a woman burn victim whose face was covered in scar tissue. Later that same day, I met a woman whose sister had committed suicide by fire after being tormented by her husband. The sister’s hand was wrapped in gauze because she was burned as she tried to save her sister.
I was in Iraqi Kurdistan to research a report on violence against women and girls there. In order to obtain a full picture of the problem and the International Rescue Committee’s role in addressing it, I met with judges, police, criminal investigators, NGO advocates, and lawyers. I heard terrible stories of abuse by family or community members. And I also learned that the physical violation rarely meant the end of the abuse. Those violent acts were often followed by equally tragic experiences with a law enforcement system not yet prepared to adequately address violence against women and girls.
It is not supposed to be that way. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has strict laws that protect women, but what I heard over and over again, was that while the laws exist on paper, they are not consistently implemented. From the moment an abused Iraqi woman musters the courage to present herself to police, her rights and protections under law are not always applied. For example, I heard from police that they would often send a woman home after she reported abuse. They believed that by doing so they were being helpful and supportive of the woman and her family, because it avoided publicity, and ultimately, protected the family’s “honor.”
One police officer told me others embrace this approach as well. “This culture also affects judges and judicial investigators. Often they don’t act urgently to file a complaint and start the legal process because it could end up splitting the couple up. They tend to try to mediate and send the couple back home together.” One reason is that it can be dangerous for police officers and judges who impose law over tradition. This creates a vicious cycle of violence where perpetrators know that they can get away with it in the name of “honor”.
Maintaining family honor is of critical importance, and sometimes seems to supersede the law. I also spoke with lawyers who told me that there were other confounding ways the laws weren’t applied. In cases of rape, the judge might believe the victim provoked her attacker, only to charge her with adultery. I also heard stories of female victims of violence being jailed- for their own safety, due to a lack of shelter facilities. Clearly, there is a disconnect.
One IRC staff lawyer who has defended women in court told me that a victim’s first encounter with law enforcement sets the tone for how she is treated by the legal system. It followed that if the first encounter is positive and supportive, it will be much more productive. So last year, the IRC proposed training police officers on what violence against women is, how to relate to victims, and what the rights of those victims are. The KRG agreed, and also agreed to an IRC proposal to draft a manual outlining roles, responsibilities and procedures in cases of violence against women. That nine-page manual was in use at one of the three day training seminars I sat in on as part of my research, and is now being improved with input from police and the KRG.
Bringing violence against women into the legal system means changing long standing social and tribal practices. It won’t be easy, but with support from the judiciary, the government, and activists, it’s rewarding to see progress.
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