How Can We have Effective Women’s Organizations in the Kurdistan Region?

By Chiman Salih:

While attending many activities of the Kurdistan Women Organizations (KWOs) I’ve noticed that the speakers at the conferences, debates and so on are always limited to a predictable number of organisation heads, activists and parliamentarians. The opportunity is not extended to members of wider society and there is no attempt to have more variety of speakers with experience directly relevant to the events and the subjects debated.

I believe that this approach has rendered these organizations relatively ineffective, as they lack deep roots in society and are unable to mobilise support based on strong ties in the community to secure the changes they are seeking.

It’s unfair say they have achieved nothing but, after up to 25 years of existence, we cannot say they have strong enough roots in the communities to make an favorable impact for women amidst our society’s deep social, economic, political and problems.

But why we don’t have stronger organizations? What are the obstacles? Why have they been unable to make a real difference? How can they adopt more effective plans? How can they become more representative of society, and win the acceptance of society? How can they bring people out onto the streets to support their causes? Why are they limited to a pool of 100-200 people? How can they turn their words into achievements?

After a decade of attending many KWO activities, I now know in advance what to expect: who will be speak, what will be said, the agenda, and the outcome most of the time will result in nothing…

Since 2003, there has been a dramatic increase in access to funding sources for civil society organizations, especially those working in the field of women and gender issues. In the decade 2003-2013 a large amount of money from international donors – from the UN, EU, various governments and local authorities – was provided to advance women’s issues in the Kurdistan Region. A lot of workshops, seminars, conferences and forums were held and this still continues. But as a matter of fact none of these events has had an impact in helping build a structural base for powerful organizations working on women and gender issues. The reason is first and foremost the lack of a strategy to reach out and build structural unity through solidarity between the interest owners working to achieve their goals. If you build this sound base, all the other changes will eventually come as a result of adopting the right path.

This is not only my point of view. Some international donors addressed this disadvantage of the work of the local organizations in developing countries at the first Humanitarian International Summit in Istanbul two months ago. They didn’t put all the blame on the local organizations and they also criticized themselves for not operating effectively enough, in a way to help local organizations build structural foundations and become solid and independent, and they pledged to change their methods of work.

The local organizations’ first priority should be to focus on the goals they have set, and not to put all their energy into obtaining the next tranche of funding while they still have unfinished projects.

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Photo – Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

The KWOs should have their road maps to reach their goals. They can develop these in accordance with the declared international standards for development and women rights set out international bodies like the UN. And they should have a very precise study of the society they are working and all its multilateral implications. The most important issue to realize is that this is their central duty.

The way forward for KWOs is to build strong social networks, to have an impact on decision-making inside the administration and on social attitudes to persuade the society to take steps towards change to end violence, change laws, and limit the role of those with harsh minds who seek to impose the bad heritage of aspects of our culture and tradition upon women.

How you can do that? By involving people from different sections of society. What will you need? You need people. You need the grassroots to become involved in the organizations at all levels including the highest levels in terms of authority and positions.

So every actor in the KWOs and civil society should know that real progress cannot  be achieved by a limited number of people and a limited number of visions. The KWOs should involve a wide range of speakers and activists to have their say in conferences, planning sessions, advocacy groups and work with stakeholders such as the media, government and members of civil society involved in other areas of social work.

They should have medium and long term programs to draw in new players. Since they are working for women in the society, they should pave the way for as many women as possible to have their say as they push for women to have a better position at home, in the workplace, in society, in the media and in decision-making by institutions.

Womens’ movements should exist not only for those who are active within them. They are for the whole society, even those who do not support them, or who have a low awareness or understanding of their role. I have observed some KWO leaders and activists challenging women who are successful in their own fields of work for not being members of their organizations. This attitude contradicts what’s needed to advance and secure gender balance because we should be involving all these women, not discouraging them.

Once I accompanied a number of human rights and women’s rights activists to meet the then Kurdistan Regional  speaker of the parliament, Arsalan Bayiz. The group demanded an amendment to a law so as to punish those advocating violence. He told them that, if they could bring even half the number of their rivals’ supporters onto the street, he would be able to make this amendment very easily. They stayed silent. They should have asked themselves why, since their demands would benefit the majority, they could not mobilise this support.

Having progressive supporters of women’s causes, both male and female, in the community is very important. Our society is going through much turbulence. There are hardliners in different levels and layers of society who favour taking society backwards and want to stop women from speaking out for their rights as human beings. Sometimes these reactionaries create rumors and heap stigma upon those who don’t accept their backward norms.

Simply having KWOs, if they aren’t effective enough, can still be considered as a breakthrough: I would like to stress the importance of their existence and assure them that I am supporting them. Nevertheless, I have to ask, why should they be content just to exist? They should also work hard to make a real difference along the path to creating a better situation for women in society.

An important way which can be achieved, especially in this time of economic crises, is to keep renewing the movement with new blood in all the fields of work, having new speakers at the events and activities. When you decide to work for women’s progress you should be strong, brave and compassionate, and not be influenced by the fear that someone else, especially from among those you are working for, might eventually take on your role. You should be a leader in every sense of the term.

My recommended approach is based on the relationship between collective action and change in society. This relationship dates back to the earliest times. It was and still is the way to secure economic, social and political changes in the world, including for the empowerment of women.

The World Bank made this theme a core part of its Development Report for 2012 which states that collective action has been and can be a potent force for women’s empowerment. In Kurdistan we have had many women’s organizations but they have failed to build roots in society. I have witnessed the establishment of many groups, for example some working for peace, others against domestic violence, others denouncing negative preaching against women by some religious leaders and so on. Most of these groups only lasted for 3-4 months and none of the KWOs have been able to mobilize people for their causes. They need to attract more, ordinary women rooted in their communities – we can draw on the example of the heroic Malala Yousif from Pakistan, who defended the rights of girls to have access to education .

If the KWOs can mobilize people, they will be sought out by the political parties which will increase their bargaining power and overall influence. They can use social media and other media channels, have negotiations with formal and informal bodies but, without having power on the street, all these channels will ignore them and only address the concerns of a male-dominated society.  The womens’ organizations exist only as quiet voices, to be heard on set occasions. The economy, negotiation tables, leading boards, natural resources, trade, media, decision-making bodies, and so on, remain male dominated. The laws stay as they are. A society like this is inevitably a society that can be penetrated by violence every day and night.

Chiman Salih is a legal consultant, writer and journalist.

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