Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ending Domestic Violence

A rare site: a river near Duhok 
Ramadan and the Eid holiday are over and Kurdistan is resuming a more regular schedule.  For me this included a trip to Erbil and Duhok where I was last week.*  In Erbil I was a panelist for the Kurdistan Careers Conference (which was repeated in Sulaimaniya on Friday and Saturday), attended mainly by recent college graduates.  The panel was made up of expats talking about the organizations they worked for, their experiences, opportunities for employment, why they came to Kurdistan and how they see Kurdistan's future.
I was the only representative from an NGO at the conference.  My co-panelists predicted a very bright future for the region with, among other things, oil and gas production (Exxon-Mobil and Chevron both have agreements to drill here).  I suggested that although Kurdistan had many positive things going for it, there were some things which serve as impediments to full development and that their generation would need to change them.  For example, the KRG (and many other governments) have a political system in which so much of the government's funds go to  "public sector employment" rather than building sorely needed schools, establishing hospitals, supporting legal assistance programs, etc.  Another is the influence of tribal and cultural traditions that on the one hand give the Kurdish people their identity and rich heritage, but on the other too often perpetuate human rights violations.  Finally, I opined that any country or region which discounts 50% or more of its human resources -- its women -- will never grow into the kind of nation it otherwise could be. 

American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniya, site of the
Kurdistan Careers Conference
One of the significant human rights  issues in Iraq and a growing problem, even in areas like Sulaimaniya, is the problem of suicide and forced suicide, which is just another word for honor killing.  And the incidence of "self" immolation is alarmingly high.  Many of the women who burn to death or who are badly burned but survive are taking, or trying to take, their own lives because they feel there is no alternative.  In many cases, for example, they have been forced into unhappy and often abusive marriages.

But Iraq and Kurdistan both have recently enacted anti-domestic violence laws that make illegal not only domestic violence, but also forced marriages, underage marriages, genital mutilations and other forms of abuse.  As part of the law, the Directorate for Follow-up of Violence Against Women was created to help those protected by the law.  This Directorate refers many women to Heartland Alliance's Legal Help Desks (part of the UNDP Access to Justice Project).

The Heartland Alliance Access to Justice Project Manager,
Duhok Administrator and me with the Director in Samel and
her assistant
When we were in Duhok we visited the Directorate in the city of Duhok and also in the District of Semel.  In order for the Anti-Domestic Violence Law to be accomplish its purposes, it must be implemented effectively and enforced.  I'd love to be able to get the funds for a program to help do this.  For example, the law includes penalties, both monetary and penal, for certain violations; if damages were awarded under the enumerated circumstances, it might be a way to help women who are left with little if any means of supporting themselves (and so they are often forced to stay in abusive relationships). 

We also visited the men's penitentiary just outside of Duhok where prisoners who have already been to trial and are found guilty are held; while there we met with its director in order to coordinate outreach sessions, periodic visits, and referrals and we toured the facility. The differences between this penitentiary and those in the United States are remarkable.  The Duhok facility holds about 1000 prisoners in 100 "suites" of approximately ten men.  The suites include the bedroom, a kitchen, a sitting area and an outdoor space.  In fact, except for the steel doors that are locked each night, it felt more like a dormitory than a prison.
In one of the prison suite sleeping area with the director of the
Last week I also had the opportunity to attend the Kurdish wedding of one of our staff members.  When I say wedding, it's not what we mean in the United States and other Western countries.  In fact, what we would call the engagement is actually like a combination of the engagement and marriage;  the couple have a ceremony conducted by the religious leader and then they have several months during which they get to know one another, acquire the things necessary to set up house, etc.  After that, they have the "wedding" which in fact is when they take pictures (in this case the bride wore a very Western-looking white wedding gown and the groom wore a tuxedo), then join their guests for dancing and dining -- the party (or what we would call the wedding reception).  After that, they start their lives together.  A number of Heartland Alliance staff sat at one table, danced and had a great time celebrating this happy occasion!
On our way to the wedding -- I borrowed traditional
Kurdish dressy clothes