The Women’s Legal Assistance Organization (WOLA)

In spring 2008 WOLA (Women’s Legal Assistance) was founded. It monitors jurisdiction and law implementation and offers individual legal assistance. Initially one of WADI’s projects, WOLA later became an independent local NGO that succesfully runs a variety of programs and campaigns to empower women in Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Written by Haje Keli

The Women’s Legal Assistance Organization (WOLA) was founded in the beginning of 2008 with the help of WADI as a project focused on offering legal aid to women. It has been the first women run legal aid organization in Iraqi-Kurdistan that focused both on individual cases and campaigns for more equality and women’s rights.

One of WOLA’s most memorable projects involved taking responsibility for following up issues within a number of shelters and being guardians of the beneficiaries. They received a great deal of attention for this important project, as there had never before been any stories published about women’s shelters.

For three years WOLA also maintained a center in Kifri where women could receive legal aid in addition to other practical courses. The center received many visitors, as it was the only women’s center in the city. The budget for the center obtained from donors was quite small, and WOLA donated most of their time for free. Donating their time and expertise for free is something WOLA is known for, and this becomes quite during the course of discussions with Shokhan, now the head of the organization.

WOLA is currently partaking in an ongoing project with the help of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which deals with monitoring the process of the implementation of the anti-domestic violence law (Law No. 8 of 2011) in Iraqi Kurdistan. With the assistance of WADI, WOLA embarked on this project and received enough backing to declare themselves an independent organization. Initially the work was very demanding, as the law was new and little was known about whether or not it was being implemented or if legal workers were even cognizant of it.

WOLA prepared seasonal reports about the situation of the law and the progress the courts had made in its implementation. Fortunately, the reports had an affect on the government and other affiliated parties, which is one reason WOLA is currently in their third year of the project. Shokhan explains that there are still problems with implementing the law in many courts, showing that, while WOLA has accomplished what most NGOs fail to do in Iraqi Kurdistan, they still need more backing in order to continue their work and fully achieve their objectives.

At the end of 2013, WOLA was contacted by the association for NGOs to apply for funding for a legal project. WOLA received the funding and were accepted as the only such legal organization in Suleymania. This project required that they move to their own facilities and add members to their staff, thus declaring themselves independent of WADI. Until then they shared one office with WADI.

Steps to Independence

This move was welcomed by WADI as WOLA was originally created with the intention of one day separating from WADI and standing on its own as a self-sufficient NGO. The original perception that the women of WOLA were working entirely under the jurisdiction of WADI was previously a point of frustration. Since WOLA’s birth it has been its own active force offering priceless legal aid to the women of Kurdistan. Indeed, the misperception of the relationship between WADI and WOLA had its upside, as it worked as an incentive for WOLA to be completely independent.

The move was bittersweet, however, because the women of WOLA have a special relationship with WADI’s director, Falah Muradkhan, as he has been their mentor, guide and biggest advocate for many years. “We are always supported by Falah, he is always pushing us to be better,” they explain.

Alas, as all students must once leave the comfort of their classrooms, WOLA, too, left their little room in the WADI offices and moved into their own premises. “We officially became an independent organization on January 1, 2014,” Shokhan said. The independence required an expansion of their staff, and WOLA added four additional lawyers, one social researcher, an administrative officer, an accountant and a logistical expert. Within each projects they have a project leader and project coordinator. They are currently a staff of ten. Shokhan explains, “We went about hiring our extended staff by announcing the positions and interviewing applicants. It was all done fairly so we could find the most qualified staff.”

WOLA’s work in 2014 consisted partially of finding free of charge solicitors for women that had cases in court. From February 2014 to 31 December 2014 they have managed to obtain lawyers for 122 women. 84 of these cases have concluded, either in a victory, settlement or withdrawal, and 38 women are still in court with their respective cases. A total of 437 women have received legal consultation through WOLA, either by phone or through visitation. WOLA also held two seminars each month in various districts of Suleymania such as Halabja, Baziyan, Pira Magrun, Sirwan, Sharbajer, Penjwen, Kalar, Kifri, Raniya and Qaladize. The seminars were about the anti-domestic violence law (Law No. 8 of 2011) and the law about usage of mobile phones (Law No. 8 of 2008). Often seminars are held at schools for students over the age of 14, so teaching them about proper use of mobile phones is crucial. Advocacy around the anti-domestic violence law is a large part of WOLA’s work. WOLA has held many workshops and seminars where they engage in a healthy exchange of ideas on how to improve the law. Following many conferences with legal experts and politicians, WOLA has made a proposal to amend the anti-domestic violence law, as it is an often criticized law, it needs to be amended. “Our draft is now ready to be presented and many of the parliamentarians support our draft. However, because of Iraq and Kurdistan’s current climate, work on amending the anti-domestic violence law has stopped,” Shokhan says.

Training of Law Students

Demonstrating their investment in the future of Kurdistan’s legal scholars and workers, WOLA initiated a project to give guidance and practical training to law students in Suleymania. The organization arranged a summer course for law students entering fourth year of law study. The course consisted of visiting the courts to see how cases are handled. WOLA contacted the University of Suleymania and offered their assistance in showing students what life is like as a solicitor. The law faculty agreed and sent twenty students to WOLA. These students visited WOLA’s offices, where they were offered seminars on how to practically obtain lawsuits and how to proceed. Shokhan shares, “Sadly what students mostly learn at law schools here is theoretical, and since they will be practicing law they need to see how it is done in practice.” The students were informed them about the anti-domestic violence law and visited women prisons and the directorate of violence. Shokhan explains that the legal curriculum has not changed much over the past few decades but actual day-to-day dealings with the law have changed and are ever changing. When visiting, the courts the students observed WOLA solicitors’ cases and they witnessed argumentations and deliveries in real time. The course was such a success that many other students asked to join. The law faculty also recognized WOLA’s efforts and thanked them by opening a legal clinic within the faculty with WOLA’s guidance. Now Shokhan is acting as a consultant at the faculty. WOLA’s lawyers visit the students and present ongoing cases to them, and the organization’s practical course has now been adopted by the faculty. Tara, another solicitor, and Shokhan are also members of the reconciliation council in the courthouse. They visit the council on Tuesdays and Sundays, and through that line of work Shokhan and Tara meet many women and work to assist with them legal representation.

WOLA tries to reach out to those who may need their services through various outlets, aiming to be as visible as possible so women know that they exist and can offer free legal advice. Shokhan explains that they advertise through billboards, brochures and other media outlets, and, since everyone knows that the best advertising is word of mouth, WOLA have experienced that women whom they’ve helped end up recommending them to friends and family and acquaintances. The directorate of violence and other institutions also tend to refer women to WOLA.

Strong Media Presence

WOLA has also had a strong presence in the media, with their members often appearing on TV shows and expert panels on issues of women’s right in Kurdistan. The power of media has also led women to actively seek WOLA for their services. Shokhan recalls the time a woman once called her and said she wanted to visit the organization. The woman had seen Shokhan on a talk show (Avin Jin u Jiyan) and memorized her first, middle and last name and went to the courthouse to find her number. “I am happy we are making ourselves available for these women,” Shokhan said. They have been commended by donors for their efforts to reach far beyond their initial target group. While their job is very taxing, the women of WOLA do not tire from it because they believe in what they do. They have dedicated years to a cause they believe in. While at the present time the funding for their projects has stopped because of a small reassessing period all donors have to do for their own bookkeeping, Shokhan and the other WOLA girls have not closed shop – they are still working despite no pay. “We are visited everyday by women that need us and we have ongoing cases. We cannot simply close up and leave and wait for funding,” she explains.

WOLA is also collaborating with the UNICEF and WADI project to combat FGM. They conduct seminars about the anti-domestic violence law, which are facilitated and coordinated by the FGM mobile teams. The participants have to be professionals that engage with the law at some point, i.e., police, medical workers, judges, lawyers, social workers and many more. Shokhan and Tara are advisors on the FGM project since they have previously worked as part of WADI’s mobile FGM teams. Their role is to also make sure that the mobile FGM teams adequately convey the anti-domestic violence law to the women in the rural villages. Shokhan says they will continue conducting the seminars about the anti-domestic violence law from this month.

Close Partnership

Shokhan smiles gently when she says, “We have reached a new point in our relationship with WADI where we are partners that assist one another.” It is an obvious full circle moment for the brave women of WOLA. “Sadly,” she continues, “We need to do even more meetings and seminars on the anti-domestic violence law because many places we go, the very people that need to be very acquainted with the law know very little about it, despite it being a law since 2011.” Proving further that WOLA does not consist of women that are interested in fame or wealth is their activism in the women’s right group “Jiyan”. “Jiyan”, a group consisting of various organizations and activists, includes members of WOLA who act as lawyers for the group. Shokhan has worked for justice on a few so-called “honor” killing cases that have been taken on by the “Jiyan” group.

Shokhan wants to leave the readers with an important message from the WOLA women: “We will continue to serve women legally. We may be working on other legal projects simultaneously but our main focus has and always will be to serve women who would otherwise struggle to find legal aid. We enters the court system on their behalf and speak in the courts on their behalf with their guidance and blessing.”