The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”. UNICEF spoke to Kaiy Abdalstar, an Iraqi lawyer and activist working to improve the rights of girls and women in Iraq.
“When I was 12 years old, my father told me I could no longer go to school. I remember being scared and sad on that day,” said Kaiy Abdalsatar. Her words, spoken softly, belie her determination and a steely resolve that has propelled her forward.
“I blamed myself because I thought I was a bad person. I thought maybe I’ve done something wrong, but it was because I was a girl. I had no idea education was my right, “she said solemnly.
After overcoming her initial anger and sadness, Kaiy started to teach herself at home. She watched educational programmes on TV and diligently followed current affairs. Her brother shared his school materials and she kept up with him. By the time she turned 18, she was able to sit and pass her national exams before finally convincing her father to let her attend university.
Education is a pathway to getting all our rights [as women]. It makes me sad when I meet young girls who are married with children, when they should be in the classroom.
Fast forward to 20 years later, Kaiy is a 33-year-old lawyer and activist working with a UNICEF partner Iraqi Al-Amal Association which operates a Center for Women in Kirkuk. The center provides legal services, psychosocial support and a safe space for women and girls who have suffered gender-based violence, including child marriage.
Some women and girls who receive services from Al-Amal were married as young as 11 years old. According to a recent UNICEF-supported survey, an estimated 27% of women are married before the age of 18.
“Although there is a legislation against child marriage in Iraq, more efforts are needed to change social norms and attitudes that perpetuate this and other harmful practices against girls and women,” said Ivana Chapcakova, UNICEF’s Gender-Based Violence Specialist.
“If families do not learn to see the value and humanity of girls, child marriage is bound to continue within a society and that is what we see in Iraq,” she adds.
Kaiy says her father had no intention of marrying her off when he stopped her from going to school. She admits to seeing a little bit of herself in the girls who come to Al-Amal and that is part of what drives her activism and legal work.
“Education is a pathway to getting all our rights [as women]. It makes me sad when I meet young girls who are married with children, when they should be in the classroom. I want to help them realize their rights,” she says passionately.
Kaiy leads a team of ten activists in Kirkuk comprised of four men and six women who conduct awareness sessions with the community in Kirkuk. The sessions are held in schools, in people’s homes or coffee shops, with the purpose of changing parents’ and communities’ harmful gender norms.
“You can’t change society by engaging women only,” said Kaiy. That’s where the male activists come in. They specifically talk other men in the community on a range of issues, using both religious texts and Iraqi laws in efforts to prevent violence at home and as well as promote the rights of women and girls.
In concluding our conversation, I ask Kaiy what her hopes for the future are: “My hope is for Iraq to be a safe country, for violence to end and for girls to get all their rights,” she said.
“I also hope to go back to school and get my PhD. I don’t want to get married. I choose my education and my career, not marriage”
Laila Ali is Communication Specialist, Programme Section, UNICEF in Erbil, Iraq.