Empowering Women and Girls in Kurdistan

The state of rights since the Kurds gained autonomy.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, promoting the empowerment of women and girls is considered very important.  It is for this reason that for her 20th birthday, Pakistani women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize after the Taliban almost murdered her for promoting female education in 2012, visited Iraqi Kurdistan in order to promote female education among the refugees who fled ISIS. In her speech, she thanked the Kurdistan Regional Government for the work they are doing empowering young girls: “You are all doing great work. I would like to thank you all for empowering young girls and giving them the opportunity to share their ideas, develop their skills and to be the leaders of today and tomorrow.”

During the meeting between the Kurdish Prime Minister and Malala Yousafzai, Barzani suggested that Malala should be in touch with the Kurdish Women’s High Council as part of her work promoting the empowerment of women and girls. The Kurdish Prime Minister made this suggestion for he cares about women’s rights, even though it is not something popular in the Middle East. 

This is best demonstrated by his government’s efforts in rescuing Yezidi women and girls.  So far, the Yezidi Kidnaping Affairs Office, which is part of Kurdish Prime Minister’s Office and has a mission to rescue Yezidi women and girls who were enslaved by ISIS, managed to rescue 3,600 Yezidis. The Kurdish Prime Minister is very dedicated to this issue. As the Kurdish Prime Minister proclaimed to the commander of the Yezidi female fighters, “Even if I have to sell my jacket, I will rescue every single Yezidi.”

In addition, the Kurdish Prime Minister has donated to Malala Yousafzai’s organization for he supports her mission of empowering refugee girls and women who have been unable to study due to the existence of conflicts and wars. However, the meeting between Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani and Malala Yousafzai is merely one example of how the Kurdish authorities empower women and girls.

There is a young woman named Maryam Barootchian, who lost her family during Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks upon the Kurds. She was adopted by an Iranian family but after her adopted father passed away, she sought to locate her birth parents.  Due to a DNA test, she learned for the first time that she was Kurdish and this led her to Iraqi Kurdistan, where to this day she is searching for her biological parents. During the search for her family, Kurdish Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani is financially assisting her and making sure that all of her needs are met for he seeks to empower her and to support her as she searches for her real parents. 

For Nichervan Barzani, empowering Kurdish women and girls is a top priority. Since 2008, the Kurdistan Regional Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani amended the Iraqi Personal Status Law, which was used as an excuse to justify honor killings, and ratified Article Eight on the Elimination of Domestic Violence, which outlaws all gender-based violence. As a result of these measures, honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan are considered intentional homicide and due to the changes in the law, the number of honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan has significantly decreased since the Kurds got autonomy. In addition, the Kurdish authorities outlawed all forms of forced marriages and female circumcision, restricted polygamy and reformed the inheritance law in order to guarantee a fair share for females.

“By revising and introducing these laws, the differences in the protection of women rights between the Kurdistan Region and other parts of Iraq have become immense,” Kurdish Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani proclaimed. “These laws have enabled the Kurdistan Regional Government to take practical and systematic steps to curb violence against women. The government has established a directorate for combating violence against women and established shelters for women under threat. It has also established courts and appointed special prosecutors within police stations to investigate cases related to violence against women.”

The statistics highlight that there has been an improvement in the plight of women in Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, in 2015, there were 565 recorded cases of violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, in 2012, there were 1300 recorded cases of violence against women in the Kurdish region of Iraq.  This implies that there has been a significant reduction in the level of violence against Iraqi Kurdish women since the introduction of laws that punish perpetrators for assaulting, raping and murdering women. Although it took time for the laws to influence the actions of the population and in the beginning, there was not a strong reduction in the level of violence against women, in the long term, the results have been positive.

In contrast, in Iraq, where the laws of the land still let rapists off the hook if they chose to marry their victims, Al Akhbar reported that 14,000 women were killed due to gender-based violence between 2003 and 2015. These statistics are likely to be significantly lower than the actual figure because in the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq, women have been kidnapped, raped and killed systematically both by jihadist groups like ISIS and the Shia militias on a regular basis. In addition, 1 in 5 Iraqi women has been beaten by her husband and Iraqi law offers the woman little protection from this. Following the eviction of ISIS from Mosul, there is some hope that things will get better in the rest of Iraq as well. However, unless the Iraqi government distances themselves from Iran and takes similar measures to combat violence against women that the Kurdish authorities have taken, the likelihood that things will significantly improve is slim.