Iraq - Working to End Domestic Violence Against Women Refugees of the Syria Conflict

24 Mar 2014

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More than 2.5 million refugees have now fled the three-year conflict in Syria to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The Kurdistan region of northern Iraq is home to some 225,000 displaced Syrians who have settled here in camps and amongst host communities, desperate to escape the ongoing bloodshed in their native country.


But life is not easy in the camps either. Many young women, thankful to have escaped with their lives, arrive here only to find themselves forced into marriage by their families. Domestic abuse is widespread. One victim, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, tells a story that is tragically not uncommon. At the age of 20, she was forced to marry a relative, and was later abused.


“He decided to marry me off to a relative by force,” she says. “I stayed with him for a month. During that month, my life was equal to death. I was beaten up. I was slapped. I was lucky not to be killed.”


The United Nations Development Programme, in partnership with the Directorate of Combatting Violence Against Women, is working in the camps to educate Syrian women about their legal rights, as well as provide psycho-social counseling.


Sarkawt Omer Ahmad, Director of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Directorate of Combatting Violence Against Women, oversees the programme. “It was a very good initiation from UNDP,” he says. “With the NGOs and our staff we could establish a good office there that enables us to support the refugees by providing legal and social services.”


Sarkawt Omer says that the problem of forced marriage is “more related to the culture of this society”. In Kurdistan, marriage from the age of 15 onwards is considered legal as long as there is family consent. If a girl or young woman is forced into marriage, she is not allowed to refuse. “The cases that I see are dealing with forced marriage and yes, they face abuse if they refuse,” says Shadnam Ahmed, a lawyer working for Development of Human Rights and Democracy.


As well as providing support to women victims, the programme, which began in 2011, also helps to train judges and lawyers to better deal with cases that arise. In addition, men are trained to raise awareness and counsel against domestic violence.


Through the programme, women who have fled one type of violence are being empowered to escape another. “When I arrived here, I was like a dead person,” says the young woman victim of domestic violence, who found eventually found refuge in a shelter. “The Department supported me a lot. I thank them for empowering me. They helped me overcome my fear.”