Three years ago, while attending a meeting at WOLA, a women's legal assistance organisation, we met Shanga Rahim Karim.
Shanga, whose passion is for women's human rights, is 26 years old. While still in secondary school, Shanga's sister, a social worker, worked at the prisons and would come home with stories which were of interest to Shanga. She wanted to join her sister in the prison system so she, too, could help the women there.
Shanga enrolled at the University of Sulaimani and studied journalism. She said, "If you have a dream, journalism helps". During her time at the university, she volunteered to write for a Kurdish independent newspaper called Hawlati. She was assigned to the women's human rights section. Recognizing her skill in reporting, she was promoted to the position of director for the women's section of the whole newspaper. Not only writing for the paper, she also began to speak publicly about the laws that governed women and their lives. Shanga spent time interviewing many women and was invited to speak on television.
After graduation, Shanga began writing for a woman's right’s newspaper that was published by the Awene, mainly reporting on issues around women’s rights, trying to instill in them the idea that they have rights and that they can stand up for them. Shanga met many women who still relied on their husbands to interpret their rights, how they dressed and when and where they traveled, amongst others. Shanga deeply distressed by this, continued to speak out.
As Shanga and I spoke, she had to stop from time to time as she was so filled with distress at the situation.Before working for WOLA, Shanga started working voluntarily for international NGO's. In 2007 Shanga met Falah, project coordinator of WADI in Iraq. She asked if she could work with them in building up the first Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) campaign in 2007. Shanga helped with collecting the 14000 signatures which were submitted to the parliament asking to ban the practice of FGM by law, luckily this law was issued in 2011. At WOLA, Shanga is also the editor in chief of the first “Women’s Rights Newspaper” in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I asked Shanga, what was the hope that carried her forward?
Shanga said “We now have several shelters for women, 4 in Sulaimani alone. WOLA and the government work well together on this and they have hired social workers and lawyers to protect the women in the shelters. The family has to prove that they will respect and protect the woman before she is discharged back to them. If the family fails to meet these demands concerning the women, then a group of lawyers can obtain prison sentences for members of the family responsible. These lawyers are called upon to defend women in many of their struggles and Shanga believes that they have shown the community that women can be protected.”
Shanga’s hope comes from the knowledge that more women know their rights. There are women in parliament today and she feels that she has helped raise the voice of women.
In regards to Female Genital Mutilation, Shanga shared with us“It is my hope that someday soon all women will know that they have rights and know how to apply these rights to decisions affecting their lives".
I asked Shanga, what was the most difficult part about her work and what caused sadness as she struggled with these issues?
“I am still sad about Female Genital Mutilation. I am working to stop this mutilation because it is very bad for girls. It affects all aspects of their life…their marriage, their sexual experience with their husband and, during childbirth”, she said.
When asked, what was the most frustrating part of this work?, she said, “I get so upset when women tell me that their husband will teach them how to behave. Women need to know their own rights and act on them. The FGM work is also still very challenging. Many people think that our Islamic faith requires FGM; therefore, they don’t consider it a bad thing for their children and our future. I wish people had more information about FGM, as this is difficult for us when we are working and speaking with mothers”.
I asked Shanga to say a little bit about some of the successes that she sees in this work. “I am happy to say that at the present time, in Kurdistan, domestic violence is lower, that surely is a success. Also, more and more people know about FGM and its harm to women. In fact, a law has been passed. The law states that mutilation must be stopped. Therefore, fewer women are being mutilated than years ago". She smiled, saying that she was already seeing some changes.
As I sat with Shanga, I was profoundly touched by her energy regarding the rights of women. Last year, I was invited to her engagement party where I met her family and future husband. Now that she is married, I asked her about her own relationship with her husband? Smiling, she related how he helps her around the house. Indeed, change is coming because of women like.
On November 26th a conference was held in Howler (Arbil), commemorating the International Day of Combating Violence against Women. The Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government attended as well as members of Parliament and representatives from various consulates. Shanga Rahim, Member of Women Legal Assistance (WOLA), addressed this conference on behalf of the civil society and women’s organizations in Iraqi-Kurdistan.
By Rosemarie Milazzo