“Protecting women in the short-term is one thing, but changing our society’s mentality is the only way to ensure our safety and freedom in the long-term.”
Khanim Latif has been defying convention since she was 12 years old. When her sister was forced into early marriage, Khanim refused to remain silent about the injustice of this epidemic. Now a liberal activist working in Iraqi Kurdistan, she risks her life to defend equality and offer women a refuge from gender-based violence.
Based in the city of Sulaymaniyah, Khanim runs ASUDA, the first independent NGO to focus on violence against women in Iraq. She says conditions for women are worse today than when she began this work 15 years ago. Honor killings are on the rise, economic instability has intensified domestic violence, and an influx of nearly 2 million refugees and internally displaced Iraqis has been linked to an increase in child marriage and sex trafficking. Last year Khanim and her team offered direct emergency assistance, medical and psychological care, and livelihood support to 5,000 women. They also implemented a wide range of projects to provide socio-psychological and legal support to refugee and internally displaced women and girls, including establishing a hotline for those who need counseling.
The work is extremely challenging, says Khanim. Every day she confronts violence in a society that largely condones it. Khanim not only cares for survivors and protects those at risk, she tries to change minds about the value of women and girls. It’s work she began at a very young age. When her sister was forced into marriage and Khanim’s protests were ignored, she committed herself to activism. “The pain pushed me to start reading about women’s rights and equality between men and women. I promised myself I have to do something,” says Khanim.
She studied law, political science and social work, became an expert on gender-based violence, and opened the first independent women’s shelter in Kurdistan in 2002. Her views and leadership of ASUDA have made Khanim a target of media campaigns and threats to her safety. She isn’t deterred. Khanim says she’s always been different and has steeled herself to critics; she knows that what she’s doing is right, and a new sense of urgency compels her to take action.
In 2014 terrorist group ISIS began a violent campaign against the region’s Yazidi population, murdering between 2,000 and 5,000 people during an attack on Sinjar. Khanim was a new mother at the time, but insisted on making the four hour trek to search for survivors in abandoned buildings and temporary shelters. She discovered that ISIS had abducted at least 2,000 women during the attack. It would be months before the news made headlines. Incredibly, women started to escape. Khanim sought them out and offered ASUDA’s care. She learned that women were being tortured, sold, sexually abused and forced into labor.
More than a year since the massacre, persecution continues and survivors still find their way to Khanim. She has earned women’s trust and confidence in a time of crisis. Khanim is focused on expanding support to refugees and Yazidi survivors of abuse, which involves the enormous task of shifting culture towards women who have suffered violence. She says the survivors she serves give her strength to go on, and encourage her to rally political will and social demand for change.