Published by the Dutch Government at www.government.nl on March 18th 2021
Before COVID-19, Shokh Mohammad went door to door in Iraqi Kurdistan to spread information about women’s rights. She and 11 other, equally dedicated women recently shared ideas about gender equality as part of the Women’s Leadership Programme (WLP) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She sees two concepts as essential for gender equality: awareness and empowerment.
The world will be a better place when more women occupy key positions. That’s the idea at the heart of the WLP. ‘Gender equality and equal rights for all women are a priority in the Ministry’s policy,’ explains Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie.
For Shokh, manager of an educational project on women’s rights and female genital mutilation in Iraq, a focus on women’s rights is more important than ever. Even before COVID-19, violence against women was on the rise. The epidemic has made things worse.
‘Too many women are still dependent on men,’ Shokh explains. ‘That’s deadly dangerous in a lockdown.’ The UN foresaw this early on. ‘The Netherlands and many other countries sounded the alarm at the start of the pandemic,’ Bahia says.
Shokh recalls an incident in Iraq during the lockdown: ‘A colleague was driving at night to the supermarket, when a woman stopped her and jumped into her car. The woman’s clothes where torn and she had clearly suffered injuries. She said she had been abused and needed help. My colleague informed her about her rights and took her to the police station.’
In the area where Shokh works, the domestic violence hotlines were in constant use. Shokh recounts that there were over a hundred calls every day: ‘Before the pandemic, abusers sometimes went out, but now there is no escaping them.’
To ensure that situations like this don’t recur endlessly, something must change. Women must become less dependent, and this means their eyes need to be opened. They need to become aware of their rights and potential. Shokh sees daily the impact that awareness-raising can have, when she tells women about the consequences of genital mutilation. A tradition that was officially banned in Iraq in 2011, yet appears to still occur in some circles.
‘Initially women say that they don’t experience any problems from genital mutilation,’ says Shokh. ‘After I share some information about its physical and psychological effects, without confronting them personally, I can see awareness dawning. All at once they realise the effects it’s had on their wellbeing and their marriage.’ For many women, their daughters and granddaughters this is the beginning of a long process of improving their lives.
‘Women leaders like Shokh and her fellow WLP participants play an important role in spreading empowerment,’ Bahia explains. ‘We have to teach our daughters how to achieve their goals. Strong women become the doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, human rights activists, politicians, scientists and leaders we need to tackle global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. As the UN Secretary-General once said: “Only through the equal participation of women can we benefit from the intelligence, experience and insights of all of humanity.”’
After the pandemic
The pandemic gives Shokh a great sense of urgency. But she doesn’t know whether it will accelerate the process of winning gender equality: ‘I’m not pessimistic, but I am realistic. The pandemic has inspired more compassion and willingness to cooperate. But I can’t ignore the violence and injustice.’
She’s not ready to give up yet; she’s too committed for that. ‘I use opportunities like the WLP to help all the women I have met. All the women who’ve been told to hide their body, to keep quiet, who’ve been told they can’t take part. I want to help them find the solutions they need. My shoulders feel heavy sometimes, but when I think of the future I see the women and girls who will come after us. I see them having equality, being able to speak their mind and leading us to a better future.’