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Economic freedom seen as key to women's equality

[Iraq] The Khanzad Centre for Distressed Women.
The centre opened its doors to women in December 2002 (IRIN )

The dozen or so files make a loud thud as they hit the wooden desk, and Chiman Rashid seems pleased by the sound. "These are just some of the cases we've had during the month of May. As more women hear of our services, they feel as if they have someone to talk to," she says.

Since opening its doors in December 2002, the Khanzad Centre for Distressed Women (KCDW) in the city of Erbil, northern Iraq, has been the only refuge for women seeking to escape domestic violence and, in some cases, death.

"A single day will not pass without us receiving at least five phone calls from women who say they are being beaten by their husbands or male relatives," Rashid, the KCDW's director, told IRIN. "But many of these women are not courageous enough to come to the centre, and prefer to stay anonymous."

Funded by a German NGO and supported by the UN World Food Programme, the centre is staffed mainly by volunteers from the surrounding area.

A recent survey of domestic violence in Erbil showed that over 60 percent of women interviewed reported that they had been subjected to abuse and harassment in public places. Close to 60 percent had suffered some form of violence from their immediate family. Divorced women, the report noted, were particularly targeted.

Gharibah Ali (not her real name), like the six other women living at the centre, refused to be photographed. "It's been years since I ran away from home, but I am still afraid. If they find out where I am, they will come for me," she said.

As Gharibah recounts the events that forced her to flee for her life, her fear is palpable. Her hands tremble and she refuses to make eye contact: "When I was nine years old, my father forced me to marry his best friend. In exchange, he took his friend's 10-year-old daughter as his new wife. I didn't understand what was happening.

"After one month of living with my husband, I fell sick. The authorities told my father that I was too young to be married, and that I should be divorced," she told IRIN.

She recalls how during her convalescence, her father and brothers berated her for the shame she had brought on the family.

But, three years later, just as Gharibah thought she had dealt with the trauma of the abuse, a family friend raped her.

"Very soon after it happened, many people came to know. I don't know who told them. But I remember that my father and brothers beat me severely for six months after that. They told me they would kill me. I heard of other women who were killed after they had been raped, and so one night I decided to leave. I was 13 years old when I closed my heart on my family," she told IRIN.

Since then, Gharibah has been moving from city to city in the mainly Kurdish-populated part of Iraq, ever vigilant not to disclose too much of her life story for fear that her family would hear of her whereabouts and track her down.

In 1990, Article 111 of the Iraqi Penal Code exempted from prosecution and punishment men who killed their female relatives in defence of their family honour. Human rights groups estimate that since the law became effective, 4,000 women have fallen victim to it.

In the Kurdish area of Iraq, the authorities suspended the law in 2000, but women's rights groups told IRIN that despite the suspension, "honour killings" were still prevalent throughout the north.

"These honour killings and cases of domestic abuse are just symptomatic of the lack of rights for women in Iraq," a senior member of the Kurdistan Women's Union, Najibah Amin, told IRIN. "Iraqi women are treated as second-class citizens, and therefore men feel they can do anything, even commit murder, and get away with it."

She noted, however, that since 1991, women in the Kurdish-controlled north had made several advances in the struggle for equal rights. "It is still far from ideal, but, unlike before, there are now at least a few women in public life. Men are also getting used to women in different and difficult occupations. It's about work and access to education. As soon as women have economic freedom, they will be in a better position to negotiate their relationships with men," Amin said.

A report by the United Nations Development Programme in 2001 found that a vast number of women in Iraq were engaged in the informal sector, where salaries are poor and generally lower than those of men. Moreover, it remained difficult for women to break out of traditional gender-related occupations, partly because of cultural norms.

In the north, there are traditional constraints prohibiting a man from training women and vice versa. Additionally, the UN Children's Fund in 2001 found that male enrolment at schools was far greater than that of females. The UN agency said that in some cases poor Iraqi families preferred to invest in their sons' education rather than their daughters', who were expected to assist in the home.

Following the recent conflict, human rights groups have also highlighted that women displaced by war are among those most at risk. "We have found that many women having lost their husbands during conflict will not go back to their homes, because they do not have a male to fight for their land," Amin said. "There is a big difference between what the law says and the reality."

The role women will play in the reconstruction of Iraq following the fall of Saddam Husayn is still unclear. Early meetings organised by the Coalition Provisional Authority have not been well attended by women.

Recent reports of the first political meeting in Al-Nasiriyah showed that of the 123 attendees, only four were women, and these had come from the diaspora. A similar pattern was repeated in the 28 April meeting in the capital, Baghdad, when just three out of the 300 participants were women.

"Women are preoccupied with trying to meet the daily needs of their families," Amin said. "There is a lot to overcome. Years of wars and conflicts have led them to believe that they cannot change anything. But now is the time for women to get up and fight for their rights. Nobody, least of all men, will give women their rights on a plate."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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