Eliminating gender-based violence in Kurdistan, the conservative northern region of Iraq where “honour”-based killings are still common, remains a battle. But the regional government has reaffirmed its commitment to tackle the tribal traditions that devalue women’s lives.
In a conference on 25 November to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Kurdish Prime Minister, Barham Salih, said honour killings were a result of “social backwardness and a patriarchal domination” and the government would take measures to end the “embarrassing” act.
According to Aso Kamal, a human rights activist with the Doaa Network Against Violence, more than 12,000 women died in honour-based killings between 1991 and 2007, a figure dismissed by the regional government, whose statistics show a decline in recent years, the New York Times recently reported.
Kurdish academic Nazand Bagikhani, who has co-authored a Kurdish Regional Government-funded research on honour killings, said accurate figures on gender-based crimes were difficult to compile because the violence happened in the home.
In her 168-page report, the first study of honour killing in the semi-autonomous region, Bagikhani highlighted the mentality in many parts of Kurdistan that sees family honour as more important than the lives of women.
The murder of a female family member typically happens when a woman is accused of having sex with a man other than her husband. But there have been cases of a woman killed simply for falling in love, and it is a phenomenon that occurs even in the Kurdish diaspora. Earlier this month, two Kurdish cousins in the UK were jailed for life for murdering a relative because her family disapproved of her boyfriend.
In Kurdistan, mobile phones and the internet have widened the opportunity for social interaction between young men and women, beyond the censorious eyes of male relatives.
Bahar Rafiq is the director of a shelter for women in Erbil: last month she looked after 41. The shelter, and two others in Sulaymaniyah and Duhok, are part of the regional government’s attempts to tackle domestic violence.
But the government’s best work has been amending a law that previously either let off perpetrators of honour killings, or handed down light sentences. The new law, approved in 2008, regards honour killing as murder.
But enforcing the law remains a challenge. “There is a weakness in law enforcement here… Sometimes a woman gets killed and no one is arrested,” said Bagikhani, the researcher.
Pakhsan Zangana, the leader of a new council to improve the lives of women, announced by the government on 25 November, sees honour killing as a cultural issue that cannot be solved overnight. “It will be resolved when our understanding of the concept of honour changes,” she told IRIN.