Iraqi Kurdish women find shelter from abuses as reforms take root

When Nazire got pregnant, her father vowed to kill her. Little matter that she was barely 15, or that the child she was bearing was the result of rape by the driver of the wealthy family she was working for.

According to the tribal customs still prevalent in the conservative Kurdish region in northwestern Iraq, she had defiled her family's reputation. Only her death could right that wrong.

By rights, Nazire should by now be nothing more than a statistic, a single digit added to the 382 women known to have been murdered by their families between 1998 and 2002 in the northern half of Iraqi Kurdistan alone. Instead, she is alive and living in safety with her three-year-old son, Amar.

The story of Nazire's survival is a sign of the way Iraqi Kurdistan, independent of Baghdad in all but name after 1991, has been slowly transformed.'When the incident happened, I had nobody to talk to, and it was six months before I realised what was happening to me,' she says. 'The driver told me not to worry. He told me he would sort everything out. I was only a child and I believed him.'

Instead, he abandoned her. Alone when she gave birth to her son, Nazire was separated from him the next morning. Tipped off by doctors, three policemen arrived to escort her from maternity ward to prison.

'They said it was for my own protection,' explains Nazire. 'But it was three weeks before I saw Amar again.'

Still, local judges imprisoned her father for a year, double the time he would have received for stealing a packet of cigarettes. In 2002, a law was passed defining so-called honour killings as murder.

More immediately important for girls like Nazire, though, Diakonia, a Swedish NGO, opened a women's shelter on the outskirts of Dohuk in December 2000.

'Behind high walls, and with guards at the front, the women here know they are safe and their children are cared for,' the shelter's director, Mariam Sheikmuhamad, says.

But the most vital aspect of the work done by Ms Sheikmuhamad's staff is to find a future for their charges. 'There is no future for a single mother in Kurdistan,' she says. 'So we have to be pragmatic.'

Of the eight women who have passed through the centre since it opened, two have been helped to find husbands willing to look after them and their children.

Two more have been helped to move to relatives away from Dohuk. Others have been reconciled with their families.

But after three visits from Ms Sheikmuhamad, Nazire's father has only hinted at a willingness to compromise.

Despite receiving a six-year sentence for rape, Nazire's rapist continues to deny the offence. But he has said he will accept responsibility for Amar if DNA tests prove paternity.

'We hope he will pay money to Nazire's family,' says Halas Yousif, one of the shelter's two lawyers. 'That way, at least, Amar will be legally recognised. At the moment, he is an invisible child.'

For Shirin Amedi, secretary-general of the Kurdish Women's Union, Nazire's story is evidence of the speed at which Kurdish society is changing.

'The fact the judge sentenced the driver is proof enough of that,' she argues.

'All he had were his arguments and hers. And he believed hers.'

Thanks largely to the local media's championing of reform, she adds, the number of recorded honour killings has dropped dramatically since she commissioned the 1998-2002 survey.

Back in the shelter, Ms Sheikmuhamad is less optimistic. Her efforts to publicise the shelter in newspapers in Dohuk have so far come to nothing.

'It may be the editors themselves, or it may be the authorities that are blocking me,' she says. All she knows is that it took nine months to persuade the governor to transfer Nazire to the shelter.

Other women - willing or unwilling adulteresses and single mothers - are still locked in the city's jail.

'Mentalities take longer to change than laws,' she says.