Efforts pay off to protect Kurdish women

Number of 'honor killings' recorded in northern Iraq drops after law defines this tribal custom as straightforward murder.

When Nazire got pregnant, her father vowed to kill her. Little matter that she was barely 15, or that the child she carried was the result of a rape by the driver of the wealthy family for which she worked.

According to tribal customs still prevalent in this conservative, tribal region in the Kurdish northwest corner of Iraq, Nazire had defiled her family's reputation. Only her death - an "honor killing" - could right that wrong.

If custom had held, she would now be nothing more than a statistic, a single digit added to the 382 women known to have been murdered by their families between 1998 and 2002 in the northern half of Kurdish Iraq.

Instead, she is alive, and living in safety with her 3-year old son Amar. The story of her survival is emblematic of the way Kurdistan, independent from Baghdad in all but name since 1991, has slowly transformed over the past decade with the help of dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working here.

"When the incident happened, I had nobody to talk to, and it was six months before I realized what was happening to me," she says. "The driver told me not to worry. He told me he would sort everything out. I was only a child and I believed him."

Instead, with a family of his own, he abandoned her. When she gave birth, Nazire's baby was taken from her the next morning. Tipped off by doctors, three policemen escorted her from a maternity ward to prison. "They said it was for my own protection," explains Nazire. "But it was three weeks before I saw Amar again."

"For her punishment, more like," snorts Christian Lagerlof, the Middle East representative of Diakonia, a Swedish NGO.

Diakonia's local staff has lobbied for stiffer sentences against honor killings. The pressure paid off in 2002, with a new law defining honor killings as straightforward murder. More immediately important for girls like Nazire, though, was the organization's funding to build a women's shelter on the outskirts of Dohuk.

"Behind high walls, and with guards at the front, the women here know they are safe," says the shelter's director, Mariam Sheikmuhamad. "And their children are cared for."

But the most pressing aspect of the work done by Ms. Sheikmuhamad's staff is finding a future for the residents. "There is no future for a single mother in Kurdistan," she says. "So we have to be pragmatic." Of the eight women who have lived in the shelter since it opened in 2000, two have been helped to find husbands willing to look after them and their children. Two more have been helped to move in with relatives away from Dohuk. Others have been reconciled with their families.

After three visits from Sheikmuhamad, Nazire's father has only hinted a willingness to compromise. The rapist's father has responded more positively, indicating he will accept responsibility for Amar if DNA tests prove his son's paternity.

"We hope he will pay money to Nazire's family," explains Halas Yousif, one of the shelter's two lawyers. "That way at least, Amar will be legally recognized. At the moment, he is an invisible child."

The driver, who has denied any relations with Nazire, is now serving a six-year sentence for rape. For Shirin Amedi, secretary-general of the Kurdish Women's Union, the case is evidence of the speed at which Kurdish society is changing. "The fact the judge sentenced the driver is proof enough of that," she says. "All he had were his arguments and hers. And he believed hers."

Thanks largely to the local media's championing of reform, she adds, the number of recorded cases of honor killings has dropped dramatically since Ms. Amedi commissioned the 1998-2002 survey.

Back in the shelter, Sheikmuhamad is less optimistic. Her requests to publicize the shelter in local newspapers have been denied. "It may be the editors themselves, or it may be the authorities that are blocking me," she says. All she knows for sure is that it took her nine months to persuade the governor to transfer Nazire to the shelter. Other women - willing or unwilling adulteresses and single mothers - are still locked in the city's jail. "Mentalities take longer to change than laws," she sighs.

Nazire's main hope, meanwhile, is that her father will forgive her. "My family may be angry with me, but I feel no anger for them. I just miss them terribly," she says. Even if the dispute is resolved, her greatest concern is her son. "I just want him to have a father like any other child. It makes me sad to say this, but I often think it would be better for him if I gave him away."

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