"Honor Killings" in Northern Iraq: IRC Works to Break the Cycle of Violence and Revenge
The story is a tragically familiar one for women living in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. Vana (not her real name), a young Kurdish woman, fell in love with a local boy whom she hoped to marry one day. But conservative social customs in the region where they lived prohibited any contact between a single man and woman. Despite the prohibition, Vana agreed to a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend in a remote village. When Vana arrived, her boyfriend first drugged and then raped her, all while a friend recorded the attack on a cell phone.
Now, Vana risks being victimized again—this time by her family. In Kurdistan, family honor is linked to the preservation of a woman’s virginity until marriage. Women who “dishonor” the family by engaging in sex outside of marriage are harshly punished by being cast out of their families or even killed. Hundreds of Kurdish women die annually as a result of “honor killings” carried out by family members.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working to break this cycle of violence and revenge. In 2009, the IRC launched a program in two regions of Kurdistan that seeks to reduce such killings and violence against women by encouraging local communities to discuss and re-evaluate their traditional attitudes and by improving the response of local law-enforcement and service providers to women survivors of violence. Through the program, which is supported by local volunteers, tens of thousands of people been exposed to an anti-violence message.
The problem of violence against women is presented as a women’s health issue to make it easier for the conservative community to discuss. This has allowed the IRC’s local partners to reach out to religious leaders and hold discussions on topics such as honor killing as well as to gather together groups of men and women to discuss sexual attitudes and the issue of violence. An IRC-sponsored “16 days of activism against gender based violence” campaign reached over 30,000 Kurds through local radio broadcasts and other information programs.
The IRC has offered training on violence prevention and case management to women’s shelters, local non-governmental organizations and government agencies, and has also trained service providers from Baghdad.
Admittedly, this is a difficult initiative in Kurdistan’s tradition-bound society. But thanks to the IRC, steps have been taken toward reducing violence against women and the stigma attached to its victims. Women like Vana deserve no less.
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