One Woman Is Risking Her Life to Save Thousands in Iraqi Kurdistan
After watching her sister be forced into an unwanted marriage at age 14, Khanim Latif refused to stay silent. Though just 12 at the time, she knew she didn’t want to meet the same fate. Instead, the native of Iraqi Kurdistan focused on continuing her education, which led to her calling: fighting for women’s rights.
But the road to activism was riddled with challenges.
“In a culture like ours it was very difficult,” Latif, 47, tells TakePart of her early days as a women’s rights activist. “You look like trouble talking about violence against women or like you’re fighting with your family because they want you to be covered and wear hijab. Continuing your education is hard because they want you to be quiet. Imagine how difficult it was for us.”
Despite the odds, Latif founded Asuda, the first women's advocacy group and shelter in the Kurdistan Region, in 2000. Her goal is to put an end to violence against women, honor killings, and female genital mutilation in her country. Last year alone, Latif and her team provided direct emergency assistance, medical and psychological care, and livelihood support to 5,000 women. Because of her work, Latif has been nominated for a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, which recognizes and invests in women leaders who undertake daring work.
“I started in a very, very hard time,” Latif recalls of Asuda’s early days. As the first women’s advocacy group on the ground in the region, Asuda struggled to survive and faced relentless threats from those who opposed its mission. In May 2008, Asuda’s main office and shelter in Sulaymaniyah was attacked by a gunman, and one of its female residents, a mother of three, was seriously injured. The assault prompted Latif to close the facility, fearing for her staff and the women she served—but she didn’t stop her work.
Latif’s sustained efforts contributed to several changes in the Kurdistan Region, including the passage of domestic violence protections and personal status laws—which increase a women’s rights within the family and affect marriage, inheritances, and protection from violence—and the opening of a government-run shelter, which Asuda operates.
Still, the challenges facing women in Iraqi Kurdistan are immense. The incursion of the Islamic State into the region has posed a particularly large challenge for Asuda, which worked to help hundreds of female Yazidi victims of the near genocide. In 2014, Latif was a new mother but still embarked on a four-hour journey to find female survivors hiding in temporary shelters during the terror group’s rampage.
“ISIS is a big challenge for us because most of the international NGOs leave because the situation is not stable,” Latif explains. Add to that the growing influence of conservative Islamic political groups in the government, and Latif says women in the Kurdistan Region still feel unsafe.
Despite the threats to her safety and her fears, Latif refuses to stop working for the women of the Kurdistan Region for one simple reason: her two-year-old daughter.
“What keeps me going is to help others live with dignity and also because I have a daughter. I want to make sure when she grows up, she will be in a safe society,” Latif explains. “I promised myself I have to continue with this mission. I have to continue the work I started years ago.”
While she could easily move to another country and advocate from afar, Latif can’t bear to leave the Kurdistan Region.
“This is my country, and I love my country,” she says. “If everybody leaves the country, who is going to work for them?”