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Kurdish woman’s fight to end child marriage

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Kurdish woman’s fight to end child marriage

PostAuthor: Anthea » Wed Dec 04, 2019 12:21 am

Betrothed from birth:

a Kurdish woman’s fight to end child marriage

This broken contract between the families had to be rectified in the next generation with Huzga and her cousin.

Traditions like these were once common throughout the Kurdistan Region, but they are fading with time. Exchange and child marriages were defined by the Kurdistan Regional Government as acts of domestic violence under the law in 2011. Tribal and family bonds, however, remain strong. They can operate their own set of rules and punishments, parallel to and sometimes superseding the formal legal system, thereby adding another layer of challenge when protecting the rights and safety of women.

Huzga, now 34 years old, didn’t learn of the engagement until she was 11. The eldest girl in a family of six children, Huzga had a difficult childhood. When she was six, her family joined long lines of Kurds fleeing their homes to seek refuge in Iran in the early 1990s.

Not long after they returned to Erbil, Huzga’s father disappeared, only to walk back into her life when Huzga was 13. He had taken a second wife and lived with his other family for years. While he was gone, Huzga watched her mother struggle to care for her children alone with the little support her brother was able to offer.

When Huzga wasn’t helping out with her younger siblings, she threw herself into her studies - she loved numbers and dreamed of making a career out mathematics. Even at a young age she knew the value of education. If her mother had completed school and been able to get a good job, “we would have been able to feed ourselves,” she said.

Her mother supported her academic aspirations, but her uncles were against it. “It’s a shame for girls to go to school,” they said. Huzga remembers her mother smuggling her onto the school grounds underneath her abaya, her billowing cloak.

“The law is never supreme”

At school, 11 year-old Huzga had a crush on a boy in her class. “He was like me. He was a good person. We were similar,” she recalled. But one day, she overheard her grandfather say that she was engaged to a cousin. “I don’t want him,” was Huzga’s response.

She was angry that her future was being dictated to her, that she was betrothed to a boy and a family who had never once shown any concern for her well being or offered to help her through the years she, her mother, and siblings struggled to survive. The marriage was agreed on for the sake of family honour, but Huzga felt dishonoured by her betrothed’s disinterest.

Huzga’s grandfather, though he had struck the marriage deal, agreed that they should break it off. “My dear daughter, you’re free,” he told Huzga. “I wouldn’t agree to marry into that family either.”

The boy’s family, however, did not agree to break off the engagement.

In 2001, Huzga filed a lawsuit, appealing to court to formally free her from the tribal contract. After four court sessions, none of which were attended by her betrothed or his family, the court ordered the cancellation of the sheerbay marriage.

Huzga said she finally “felt happy and free, thinking the law is supreme. But the law is never supreme.”

Her cousin’s family refused to accept the court ruling, saying the marriage could only be annulled by the act of talaq, where a man says three times that he is divorcing the woman.

With the court order in hand, Huzga tried to get on with her life. After Eid al-Adha, the Islamic holiday known as the festival of sacrifice, the man she was in love with came to her family to ask for her hand in marriage. Her father’s family threatened to kill him and any suitors who showed an interest in Huzga, saying she is not free. “Whoever comes to your front gate, we will kill him,” said the cousin Huzga had been bonded to since a baby.

The man Huzga dreamed of building a life with chose to walk away. He eventually married someone else, leaving her with a broken heart.

Huzga filed a second lawsuit against her family members because of their violent threats. Her uncle and cousin were jailed for a week before they made bail, but still did not agree to accept the end of the sheerbay agreement.

Huzga finished her studies, working two jobs to pay for her college education and graduated with an accounting degree. A friend recommended she apply for a job at the Kurdistan Women’s Union.

The Union was founded in 1952 by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to promote love, co-existence, and justice, explained General Secretary Vian Suleiman. “These have to start from the family,” she said.

The Union works to resolve disputes between women and their families. In the first 10 months of 2019, the Erbil office of the Women’s Union received 116 cases, two-thirds were problems between married couples and the others were disputes within families. 43 of the cases were referred to the courts and 42 were resolved by the Union. The remainder are still open or were referred to the government’s Directorate to Combat Violence Against Women (DCVAW).

Over its decades of advocacy work, the Union has seen progress in women’s rights in the Kurdistan Region. Now, women can been seen in the cabinet, as head of the parliament, and running their own businesses.

Women have benefitted from “drastic changes” across all parts of society under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since the Region gained its autonomy, Suleiman said. Good laws exist and organizations like the Directorate Combating Violence Against Women (DCVAW) are making progress in reducing gender-based violence. But the traditional systems must evolve hand-in-hand with the law, she added.

The KDP, like other political parties in the Kurdistan Region, has a department that sometimes intervenes to resolve tribal issues. With Suleiman’s insistence, a representative from the Women’s Union is now present for every single case that is even remotely connected to women.

While working at the Union, Huzga told her story to Suleiman who stepped into help, eventually mediating a resolution through several meetings with the family and rebuffing a demand from Huzga’s uncle that she pay $30,000 in compensation.

“It’s very difficult when tribalism is involved,” Huzga said.

Protection beyond the courts

While the law protect women’s rights, the court systems do not open up an effective dialogue between women and their families. The Union succeeded because they were able to bring the two sides together, sitting down in the same room to talk.

Asked if the court system alone is enough to protect women, lawyer Shokhan Ahmed answered with a firm “no.” She is director of the Sulaimani-based non-governmental organization Women’s Legal Assistance (WOLA).

The courts can issue a divorce certificate or open up space in a temporary shelter for a woman suffering abuse, but they do not solve the problem with the family, she explained. Part of WOLA’s work is mediation between a woman and her family after the court process is concluded.

It is no easy task. WOLA has received threats from angry fathers and husbands. The NGO has to hire security, has filed complaints in the courts, and some days can’t answer the telephone for fear of who may be calling.

“Some families don’t understand our work, don’t believe in our work,” said Ahmed. “But we try.”

More women are coming to the Women’s Union every year to ask for help. This does not mean that incidents of abuse are on the rise, says Suleiman; rather, with increased awareness, women are realizing they no longer have to live in abusive situations. It used to be shameful to report a problem inside the family to someone outside, but that shame is decreasing.

Huzga eventually married a man she met in college and gave birth to a son who will celebrate his second birthday in January. She is now using her experiences to motivate her as she helps women in abusive situations at the Women’s Union.

The word 'huzga' means wish. She chose this as a pseudonym because “I have lots of wishes in my heart. Pure hearts don’t always get their wishes. But I will try.”
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Kurdish woman’s fight to end child marriage



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