HEADLINES:

Curfew led to underreporting of domestic violence in Kurdistan Region, say advocates

Restrictions played part in ‘shadow pandemic’ of GBV worldwide
Mural painted by the Rasan Organization on the Kirkuk Road in Sulaimani (NRT Digital Media/Winthrop Rodgers)
2020-05-23

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SULAIMANI — As the Kurdistan Region prepares to re-enter a lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus over Eid al-Fitr, activists and representatives of local civil society groups have said that women in the Region likely experienced greater levels of violence than normal during the coronavirus curfew and that the accompanying restrictions hampered their ability to seek and receive help.

“Without a doubt, much more domestic violence occurred than has been reported,” Rasan Organization Director Tanya Kamal Darwesh told NRT about the curfew period in the Kurdistan Region.

Naza Shirwan Abubakir, a social worker and case manager at the People’s Development Organization (PDO) in Sulaimani, told NRT that her organization fielded calls during the curfew from women seeking help addressing physical and psychological abuse, harassment on social media, and the withholding of economic resources by family members.

Without comprehensive data from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women (DCVAW), it is difficult at this point to determine whether there was a statistical increase in complaints and incidents of abuse in the Region during the curfew period, but documented surges in countries around the world and in central and southern Iraq raise the possibility that the same dynamic may have occurred in the Region as well.

The KRG and senior officials from the political parties have made combating violence against women a priority, but it remains a significant problem. In 2019, 120 women died in the Kurdistan Region as a result of gender-based violence (GBV), including 41 of whom were murdered and 79 who took their own lives.

In response to requests from NRT, DCVAW declined to release official statistics from the curfew period, which began on March 14 in Erbil and Sulaimani cities, saying that it plans to release them in July as part of a twice-annual release.

Requests for information were also made to each of the governorates’ local directorates to combat violence against women. The offices in Erbil and Duhok declined to release any data to NRT.

The Sulaimani directorate told NRT that there had been 110 complaints between March 10 and May 11, without providing other details.

For comparison, there were 199 complaints logged by the Sulaimani directorate just in April last year. For the overlapping period of March, April, and May of 2019, there were 684 total complaints in Sulaimani governorate.

For the entire Kurdistan Region during that three-month period last year, DCVAW said that there were 2,647 complaints, 37 self-immolations, 53 burnings inflicted by others, seventeen sexual assaults, eighteen suicides, and thirteen homicides, although the true number of incidents was likely higher given that most gender-based violence goes unreported.

The small bit of official data released to NRT and anecdotal observations from civil society groups suggest that incidents are going unreported at a time when experts believe that those being subjected to abuse are especially vulnerable.

Reporting is not just about the collection of data; it is often a first step for women experiencing violence to connect with vital social, legal, and psychological support systems provided by the government and civil society.

 

“SHADOW PANDEMIC”

Early on in the global coronavirus pandemic, it became clear that rates of domestic violence and violence against women had increased worldwide.

UN Women referred to it as “a shadow pandemic.” Hotlines reported increased call volumes from people looking for help. Civil society groups sounded alarm bells.

“Confinement is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries,” Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka wrote in a statement on April 6.

“It is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behavior behind closed doors,” she added.

In mid-March both the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) imposed curfews to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As the weeks passed, evidence mounted that serious violence was taking place while people sheltered at home, hoping to avoid exposure to the virus.

A month after the restrictions began, the horrific death of 20-year-old Malak al-Zubeidi in Najaf made headlines across the country. Unable to escape her abusive husband, she suffered severe burns after being set on fire on April 8 and died of her injuries ten days later. Video of her agonized screams while in the hospital was viewed by thousands on social media.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported a litany of other serious incidents at around the same time, including rapes, suicides, and burnings.

Agence France-Presse quoted the head of Iraq's community police as saying that his force saw a 30 to 50 percent increase in cases.

During the initial stages of the curfew in the Kurdistan Region, most families were essentially confined to their homes, only able to go out to the local neighborhood market or bakery. The security forces set up roadblocks across the cities, handing out fines and seizing the vehicles of anyone not authorized to drive. Wage-earners were stuck at home and families’ cash reserves dwindled.

Slowly, as the number of coronavirus cases declined, the government relaxed the restrictions, allowing people to go out for work, leisure, and religious devotion.

However, with the traditional celebrations associated with Eid al-Fitr approaching and in response to an uptick in the number of coronavirus cases, the KRG decided on May 18 to impose a 72-hour total lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading.

 

REPORTING IN SECRET

Rasan’s Darwesh explained that the disruption caused by the coronavirus curfew created heated and potentially volatile social dynamics at home, adding that a major problem for women was finding space, privacy, and opportunity to report violations.

“More than 70 percent of the cases that came to us for help do it secretly and without their families’ knowledge because if their families find out then they will face more violence and abuse,” Darwesh said.

Abubakir echoed that observation in a separate interview.

“What was new about all those social interactions between the families during the curfew was that it made their ongoing problems worse: more talking, more fighting and quarrels, or having no one to talk to or tell one’s feelings and problems to. All of these might lead to an explosion in the house,” she told NRT.

She said that case managers at PDO received calls from women during the curfew calling quietly from the bathroom or other private places. Sometimes, they could not contact women with whom they were working for fear that the interaction would be discovered and would just have to wait for the women to call them back.

Both Darwesh and Abubakir said that there were multiple occasions during the curfew when they had to alert the Asayish or police to intervene in an emergency case. Complicating matters, Abubakir said that case managers had to obtain special permits to travel in the city and to work with women who had been abused.

They both also said that many women were unable to access timely legal recourse because the courts did not operate during the curfew.

“We mostly helped our cases in Sulaimani through social media and through counseling because the courts and departments in the Kurdistan Region were closed, so we could not help them in legal matters,” Darwesh said.

Abubakir said that this hampered both the ability of people to file formal legal documents or to see cases already in progress move through the system.

Pakhshan Zangana, a retired member of the KRG’s High Council of Women Affairs, told NRT that she also believes that the statistics about domestic violence during the curfew, including violations against children, may reflect underreporting because survivors were not able to access social services as they normally would.

She added that she believed with a high degree of confidence that the government directorates charged with handling gender-based violence cases had done their work properly during the curfew, but that “operations might have been different compared with previous months.”

In declining to release official statistics, the DCVAW also did not respond to questions about their operations during the curfew.

Abubakir said that employees at PDO had to adapt to new working conditions as a result of the curfew, just like people all over the world.

“It was not like before because we could not work from the office,” she said, adding that they were still able to perform many routine functions like writing reports, responding to calls, and holding video conferencing meetings from home.

Without official data, the picture of the gender-based violence that occurred during the Kurdistan Region’s coronavirus curfew remains incomplete.

What information is available, however, suggests that a system that works to give women greater ability to report abuse, receive timely aid, and pursue justice did not function as intended, potentially with grievous consequences that have not come to light.

“In times of chaos, conflict, and war, the first to be sacrificed are always women,” said Darwesh.

(NRT Digital Media)