WADI Projects: Women and Human Rights

More than 16 years of empowering women and promoting human rights in Iraqi Kurdistan:
A brief Overview of WADI’s Activities 1993-2010


WADI is a German-Iraqi NGO, founded in Germany in 1991. It began its activities in Northern Iraq in 1993. Promoting human rights and supporting the developing democratic civil society in Iraq are the main goals of our work. Our projects in Iraq, therefore, focus on empowering women and on advancing their political and social equality. WADI's staff members in Northern Iraq live and work in their own communities. They combat violence against women and struggle to improve the social and economic status of women in Iraqi society. 

WADI has supported marginalized groups, such as prisoners and Internally Displaced People (IDP's). Additionally, our programs aim on encouraging and empowering local NGOs, democratic organizations and women's networks.

During the times of Saddam Hussein, WADI worked in cooperation with the “Coalition for a Democratic Iraq”. Our activities in Germany include publishing research concerning human and women rights abuses in Iraq, and assisting asylum seekers from Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
In the early 1990s, after parts of Northern Iraq had been bombed to ruins, WADI participated in reconstruction and resettlement programs for displaced people in emergency relief operations. Since 1995, WADI has mainly supported long-term projects. You can find here information on WADI's ongoing projects and activities.

1) Fighting Illiteracy

For northern Iraq, the Ba'athist rule of the country meant persecution, exile and war. Generations had grown up under these conditions and rarely attended school. The majority of the region’s population did not complete primary school.

Nowadays, up to 46% of men in northern Iraq are illiterate. Illiteracy is even more widespread among women. Especially in rural regions, girls are still denied education. Education is essential for the development of a democratic society in northern Iraq. WADI's literacy programs support this aim.

From 1993 to 1998, WADI ran a campaign against illiteracy in Suleymaniah and New Kirkuk Governorates. Specific literacy courses were developed in cooperation with local women's organizations. The courses were organized in cities, collective towns and rural areas.

Local women's organizations – at that time mostly linked to the two rival political parties – were encouraged to cooperate across party-lines and develop a common agenda. WADI took part in setting the Kurdistan-based network CRHA and provided the literacy courses with new schoolbooks and trainings for teachers. This programme was conducted in close cooperation with UNICEF and the Kurdish Ministry of Education.

Since the opening of the first of WADI's women centers in 2003, literacy courses have been integrated into the activities of these centres. Today, literacy courses for women are provided in the women centres of Halabja, Byara (Hauraman), Kifri and Smut (Garmyan). After completing six literacy courses, women can register to the governmental final exam for a primary school diploma. In 2007, around 30 women passed this exam after taking part in the women centers’ literacy courses.

2) Assistance for Women in Distress

a) NAWA Center Suleymaniah

In 1997, WADI began to plan the first shelter for women in northern Iraq, in close cooperation with all active women's organizations of Suleymaniah. The project was also supported by Women against Violence (Nazareth). The first shelter for women in distress, NAWA Center, opened in 1999, after two years of intense preparations. WADI operated the NAWA Center for two years in cooperation with women's organizations in Suleymaniah. Then the center was taken under the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Affairs. WADI continues to cover part of running costs and participates in decision making processes.

The general goal of the center is to help the many women who suffer serious social and psychological problems. When the center opened, this group of women included mainly homeless and displaced women; some lost their family during war, others were expulsed from their homes. Exile and displacement were the fate of many Iraqi-Kurds, as a result of the 1986-88 Anfal Campaign.

Today, the center helps women victims of violence affected by domestic violence, forced marriages, and threats of “honour killings”. In traditional Kurdish society, women are legally subjected to men, and disobedience may be revenged with murder. Disobedient women are considered sinners. In 1999, NAWA Center was the only place to which women could flee, in order to save their lives. Since then, WADI supported the opening of more women's shelters in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Women in danger can find a safe place in NAWA Center. The center provides food and accommodation as well as psychological and medical treatment, social and juridical assistance. Workshops, literacy courses and vocational trainings are provided to the women in order to improve their psychological condition and to provide them the means for making a living. The main objective of the center is to reintegrate these women into society, and where possible into their families, while keeping their dignity.

Between the opening of the center and 2007, more than 1200 women have found shelter and assistance at NAWA Center. 

The NAWA Center has been handed over to the government (Ministry of Social Affairs) as a successful project in 2006. Due to security reasons, for permanent operation it is generally recommendable to run such shelters under government auspices. 

WADI maintains an ongoing partnership and co-operation with the center.

b) Khanzad Center for Women in Distress (now "NAWA Arbil") 

WADI and NAWA Suleymaniah participated in the creation of a similar women center in Arbil, following the request of 11 local women’s organisations. Arbil’s shelter for women in distress, KHANZAD Center, now NAWA Arbil, opened in 2002 with financial and logistical assistance of WADI. Khanzad works along the ideas and guidelines of NAWA Center. Khanzad remained open during difficult war times in 2003, when most organizations closed down. 

In 2003, WADI ended its support for Khanzad center, after the project was endorsed by the community and local authorities. The center is now operated and administrated by local women’s organisations and authorities. Co-operation with WADI is ongoing.

NAWA Center's programs include:

I) Social and medical assistance
All woman have access to professional care by social workers or therapists. Women in the centers often need this aid due to a family crisis, psychological distress following traumatic experiences, domestic violence, problems related to social control and threats of “honour killings”.

Medical assistants care for the health of the women in the center. In severe cases, doctors are consulted. Often, women arrive in the centers in deteriorated health condition, especially women who lived in the street for a long time.

II) Psychological consultancy
Women are provided with specialized psychological assistance. The possibility is open to them to take part in long-term therapy.

III) Mediation
The center provides neutral mediation in cases of conflict between women and their families. The mediators help the relatives to deal with crisis situations and learn how to resolve their problems. Husbands and relatives are included in the therapy. Supervision and regular visits by the center’s staff follow the return of the woman to her family.

IV) Short and long term shelter
Most women in the center suffer either serious psychological crisis or dangerous family problems. Many women fear violence or rape and even death. NAWA offers them shelter. The shelter accommodates up to 20 women, allowed to stay up to one year. Usually a solution can be found within one month. Bed, food, clean water, bathroom and common living rooms are available.

V) Workshops
Women may participate in workshops, if the wish. These workshops are supervised by the center’s social workers and psychologists. They are part of the therapy program. Arts and crafts produced in these workshops are sold for the benefit of women participating in the program.

VI) Literacy courses and vocational training
Education is the basis for an independent and self-confident life. Literacy courses and vocational training aim to provide basic education to women. The women can choose sewing, pottery, hairdressing or handicraft trainings. They are meant to empower women and enable them to start an own business after leaving the center.

VII) Follow-up-Programme
After leaving the center to return to their families or husbands, the women can take part in follow-up programs. NAWA center assists women in improving their personal situation and facilitate their return home.

VIII) Legal aid
Many women at the center had been abused by their husbands and need judicial assistance in order to divorce or to take legal action against their husbands. Female advocates regularly offer consultancy in the center. The center works in cooperation with the local authorities and the police. The center’s team works to raise awareness on “honour” crimes and violence against women in the police forces.

IX) Awareness
Awareness programs of the center include disseminating information in local media such as radio, newspapers and television. The center organises public lectures and provides information through the Rewan women information center in Suleymaniah. NAWA center works with and ASUDA Center to struggle against violence against women in Suleymaniah. ASUDA regularly transfers women in danger of “honour killings” to NAWA. The centers conduct common research about gender related violence in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Members of NAWA participate in local and international conferences and exchange their experience with colleagues of various countries working in the field.

Both centers work to influence Iraqi legislation in order to improve the position of women in Iraq.

3) Mobile Women-Led Aid Teams

Since 2003, WADI supports women-led mobile teams who operate in remote areas of the regions of Mosul, Arbil, Suleymaniyah, Halabja, Pishder, Qandil and Garmyan.

The mobile teams include local medical staff who provide ambulant treatment, and social workers or psychologists who assist women in social and psychogical needs. Some teams are accompagnied by a lawyer who provideslegal consultation and basic information on women's rights.  Only the driver of a team is male.

A large part of the women in northern Iraq lives in isolated villages, where neither medical services nor education is accessible. Therefore, WADI’s mobile teams head for the villages with off-road vehicles and provide these women medical and psychological support and health-education.

The mobile teams visit women and children in different areas, provide basic health services and inform them about women’s rights, women’s health, educational and legal problems. Women in distress are assisted, and if necessary brought to a hospital or a women’s shelter. The members of the mobile teams conducted research about women victims of Ba’athism and the Anfal widows.

In 2004, the women-led mobile teams began to operate in the Garmyan region, supported by the Roselo Foundation. Their work enabled the opening of Garmyan women center in Kifri.

In 2003, the teams in Garmyan discovered through their work that female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread in northern Iraq. This led WADI to initiate a large pilot project against female genital mutilation. Since then, the focal point of the mobile teams' work has gradually shifted from providing medical care to anti-FGM awareness training.

The underlying idea to meet the women where they live, is simple and striking. The teams provide medical help (treatment, medicine and sanitary goods), life coaching and practical help for women in distress on the one hand while discussing matters of sexuality and especially FGM on the other. While FGM is at the core of the sessions, practical help and psychological support are indispensable as well. All teams work in close collaboration with local women centers and rescue shelters. 

4) Women Centers

Focusing on long-term empowerment of women and the development of a democratic civil society in Iraq, WADI supports several independent women centers in Halabja, Hauraman and Garmyan regions. 

Under the Ba'ath-dictatorship, Iraqi women were discriminated against and excluded from social life, education and health care. The liberation of Iraq allowed local independent NGOs to form and operate. In a society where the roles of women are entirely domestic, there was no public sphere for women to meet and discuss their problems. The independent women's centers, supported by WADI, offer women for the first time a place for personal development and social self-organisation. In the centers, women have free access to education, vocational training, awareness courses, medical assistance, and psycho-social consultancy. During the period of the constitutional referendum and the election of 2005, gender specific courses about the Iraqi election system and politics were offered to the women.

The first center opened in Halabja in 2004, followed by the opening of Hauraman women centers in 2004 and Kifri women center in 2005. In 2007, WADI opened Smut women center in the Garmyan district.

a) Halabja Women Center

Halabja has 125,000 inhabitants and is located near the border with Iran. Throughout the 1980s it was harshly repressed Saddam's regime and was the target of chemical attacks by the Iraqi army in 1988. From the early 1990s until 2003, the city was under the rule of Islamists who were depriving women of their basic rights and propagating hostility to equality and democracy which they identified as the values of the enemy. WADI’s women’s center opened in 2004, following requests from the community.

The center is run by locally recruited women social workers and regularly visited by WADI´s mobile teams. Victims of domestic violence get socio-psychological assistance and protection. The Halabja Women Center offers a diverse programme comprising literacy courses, vocational training and awareness courses. Women may borrow books, newspapers and magazines from the library. Social events, such as parties or picnics, are regularly organized by the women. The mobile team provides an awareness programme against FGM, discussing its potential harm for girls and women. Some women also visit the center for social opportunities.

Due to growing numbers of women visiting the center and attending its programme and activities, the center had to search for another building that can accommodate the demand. In spring 2007, the center moved to a new two-story building in the town. In December 2007 the first women’s café, supported by WADI, opened in the center, as an alternative to the men-only coffee and tea places in the region. The Halabja Women Café gives women the possibility to enjoy leisure and to meet in a public place.

In 2008, Halabja women center will be financed by WADI with support by Roselo foundation and ZIWAR (Kurdish women organization). The cafeteria is supported by Stiftung Umverteilen.

b) Byara
Women Center (Hauraman Region)

In the past 20 years, the Hauraman region has known war, massacres and then Islamist control. In the late 1980s, Hauraman was heavily attacked in the Anfal campaign – the central military action of the Iraqi regime against the Kurdish population.

After the gas attacks on nearby Halabja, thousands of civilians were killed or deported and villages were razed. The entire region was heavily mined and declared as a no-go military area. In 1991, Kurds liberated themselves from the Ba'ath dictatorship and began to rebuild their region. But Hauraman and Halabja area soon went under the control of the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, which imposed a Taliban-like despotic rule.

When WADI opened Byara’s women center in 2004, it offered the first place for women to learn and develop their skills. The center runs a programme similar to that of Halabja women center, but also focusing on human rights training. From January to June 2006, 313 women benefited from the programme of the center. In spring 2006, the center moved to a bigger building in Byara in order to accommodate the growing demand from the women of Byara.

With help of the Roselo Foundation and ZIWAR, WADI is able to run the center during 2008.

c) Kifri Women Center (Garmyan)

Garmyan region is bordering the old Green Line. It is one of the poorest areas of northern Iraq. This rural area was massively destroyed by the Iraqi army during the Anfal campaign. Many men in the region were killed or deported to camps in central and southern Iraq. Villages were destroyed to the ground and the region was mined. Thousands of women and children were killed or deported. After the liberation in 1991, Anfal widows and a few surviving men came back to rebuild their villages. In the past, WADI conducted several studies about Anfal widows and held a large assistance programme for women and children.

Today, WADI's mobile teams provide women and children with medical and socio-psychological assistance. In cooperation with the local women's organization Komalla Afretan, WADI opened a library for women and girls in the city of Kifri in 1995. At that time, Kifri was surrounded by the Iraqi army from three sides. The library was the first meeting place for Kifri´s women. Up to 15 women visited the library every day to meet, socialize and organize themselves. Lectures and conferences about gender specific subjects were regularly organized by a local board of women.

In 2005, WADI opened Kifri’s women's center in cooperation with local women's organizations. The Kifri women's center is supported by Women’s World Day of Prayer Austria. The center offers a gender specific programme of literacy courses and vocational training, similar to those in Halabja and Byara women's centers. Since December 2005, women also have the possibility to attend English courses. The center’s programme is complimented by the work of the mobile teams in the region and by first-aid courses open to men and women in Garmyan's villages. Garmyan's infrastructure and health system are very poor. Most isolated villages have no access to health care. The mobile teams' assistance is extremely important in this region. WADI Garmyan is one of the most active and important pillars of WADI´s campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) in northern Iraq.

In 2007, WADI started to support awareness courses and professional training in Smut (Garmyan). Smut had been a collective town built by Ba’ath government after destroying many of Garmyan´s villages during the Anfal campaign. Therefore, Anfal widows and woman-led families make a large portion of Smut´s population. The women are invited to participate in literacy courses, professional trainings or seminars about reproductive health.

Kifri women center and Smut training courses are financed with the support of Weltgebetstag der Frauen Deutschland.

5) Radio Dange Nwe – a Community Radio for Halabja and Hauraman region

Although some independent media has worked in northern Iraq for nearly a decade, the idea of community-based radio stations is new.

In co-operation with ACDI-Voca and the Spanish Radio Gladys Palmera, WADI encouraged and supported the establishment of an independent community radio station for women and youth in Halabja and Hauraman region. After intensive preparation, the media channel for women and youth opened in Halabja in 2005. The program of Radio Dange Nwe is autonomously prepared by young Halabjian women and men that had participated in WADI's women empowerment programs before, and are familiar with local problems of youth and women. The radio provides the region with independent news, music, entertainment and reports about gender and youth specific issues. Themes of the program include: human rights, democracy, domestic violence, partnership, divorce, forced marriages, FGM and “honour killings”. Information is provided about health care, pregnancy, contraception and childcare.

Radio Dange Nwe empowers women and youth by focusing on:

  • disseminating independent and community relevant information
  • raising awareness about daily problems of youth and women
  • advancing women’s rights in public opinion
  • representing women and young people.
  • giving a voice to women's experiences
  • integrating women and youth peacefully in community based networks
  • motivating and encouraging youth and women in taking active part in community life, public debates and decision making process.
  • raising public awareness and knowledge about social problems, such as partnership, marriage, divorce, FGM and human rights.
  • raising public awareness about women and youth specific problems, such as women's rights, contraception, pregnancy and child care.
  • summer school: promoting English language by English courses opened to Halabja´s students (2007)

Radio Dange Nwe is one of the few free time activities available for Halabja´s youth. The radio’s team and equipment have already enabled another local initiative to develop: the translation and dubbing of films by young people from Halabja.

With support of the Roselo Foundation, broadcasting is guaranteed for 2008.

6) Assisting victims of the chemical attacks on Halabja

Twenty years after the gas attacks on Halabja, the population still suffers the consequences. During and immediately after the attacks of 1988 several thousands of civilians were poisoned and killed by chemical bombs. Survivors fled for long years of exile and life in refugee camps in Iran and the Eastern provinces of Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 1991, Iraqi-Kurdistan became de facto autonomous, and thus many of Halabja’s refugees were able to return to their town. However, the area soon came under the control of Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group that imposed a rule by force and fear.

Very little has been done for the inhabitants of Halabja during the two decades since the attacks on the city. The harm caused by the chemical bombs used in the attacks is long-lasting. Cancer, eye, skin, bone and blood diseases, still-birth and infertility are commonplace among those who survived the attacks. Limited health aid was offered by international organisations in 2000-01. Today, the younger generation in Halabja takes initiative to improve the situation in their town by studying, petitioning, taking part in local democratization projects and getting media attention for the difficulties their community is constantly facing.

Halabja has become an official symbol for the persecution of the Kurds. Yet the town and its population have been neglected even by the regional authorities. Only in 2006, after local demonstrations and clashes with the security forces, the regional government launched some infrastructure and water projects, but there are still no projects for better medical supply and special medical and psychological treatments.

WADI supports Halabja´s community by different projects:

  • Radio Dange Nwe (2004)
  • Halabja Women Center (2004)
  • Halabja Women´s Café (2007)
  • Legal Aid Programme (2007)
  • Women-led Mobile Teams (2003)
  • FGM Awareness Teams (2005)

Thanks to funding from Green Cross, a special programme for the victims of the gas attacks started in Halabja in 2008.

The 20th anniversary of the attack, in March 2008, was marked by conferences in Switzerland and Germany, with the participation of people from Halabja.

7) Community Radio for Women in the Jordan Valley

The Jordan Valley in the south of the country borders Israel and was traditionally populated by Bedouins. Agriculture is the main source of income. The unemployment rate is very high, while public education services are insufficient.

Farming communities are among the poorest in Jordan. 45% of Jordan valley women work as farmers for long hours in addition to their domestic and child-care responsibilities. Polygamy is not uncommon. In these conditions, it is very difficult for women to access education, while health and social services are very rare.

The community radio has been a unique opportunity for the women of the area, for communication, self-organisation and self-development. As with WADI’s positive experience with the community radio Dange Nwe in Iraq, the community radio in the Jordan Valley has been successful. It has proved an effective way of addressing a variety of topics relevant for women and supporting their struggle for equality, a better life and participation in community affairs.

With support from WADI and thanks to funds from Woman’s World Day of Prayer Germany and the German Embassy in Amman, the women's radio station was established and is on air since November 2006. The radio team includes women from the region, committed to their community, 18-26 years old. The radio had participated in journalism courses and received technical training. One of the first challenges was the restriction from families that opposed the idea of letting their daughters to go to Amman for training and attending conferences.

8) Campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one important mechanism, among others, of tight social control over women. Through the work of WADI’s mobile team in Garmyan region, it has been discovered that FGM is common in this area. A pilot study has shown that 907 out of 1544 women questioned in the survey were victims of FGM. Through this local survey a taboo has been broken. FGM had been considered an ‘African problem’, unspoken of in these parts of Iraq.

Following the evidence that FGM is widespread in northern Iraq, WADI’s staff initiated the first campaign against FGM in the country. Local mobile teams found out that FGM in northern Iraq is usually practiced by female family members or traditional midwives on girls aged between 4 to 12 years. Instruments like razors and knives are used to cut girls' clitoris according to the “sunnat excision”, i.e. the excision according to the tradition of the prophet. The wound is usually covered with ash, but no drugs are given. Sometimes girls have to sit in a bowl of icy water. 

Women justify this practice either by religion, tradition or medical reasons. Uncircumcised girls are not allowed to serve water or meals. Many women said that their daughter would not be able to be married uncircumcised. Most of the women are not aware of the long-term medical and psychological consequences of FGM.

WADI prepared two awareness films about FGM in close cooperation with local cinema directors and women's organizations. One film is used to spread awareness in Iraqi population. The film is shown daily by the mobile teams across northern Iraq, giving information and an opportunity to discuss the problem. A second film was made for Europe.  In February 2008, “A Handful of Ash”, WADI´s documentary about FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan, produced by a local director, was presented in Germany for the first time. Additional screenings took place in Switzerland and in Germany.

WADI organized the first Iraqi conference against FGM in Arbil in February 2006, which was successful in attracting the interest of Kurdish Regional Government's (KRG) interest.

WADI’s campaign „STOP FGM in Kurdistan“ obtained more than 14,000 signatures for a petition to ban FGM. It was presented to the Kurdish Regional Government. Recommendations for a law to ban FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan were prepared by local specialists and members of WADI´s mobile teams. They were presented to the KRG in spring 2007. WADI presented the law recommandations also to Kurdish women´s parliament. The bill is now in the legislation process in the regional parliament.

In summer 2007, additional mobile teams were set in order expand the campaign and fight FGM in northern Iraq. Until 2006, more than 4000 women took part in WADI´s campaign against FGM. Supported by the Swiss Caritas, the Austrian Development Agency, the Roselo Foundation and the Iraqi Civil Society Programme, several teams are currently working all over Kurdistan. A comprehensive research of FGM and its practice in Iraq is in preparation.

9) Rebuilding Democracy in Iraq

After decades of Ba’athist dictatorship, the reconstruction of democracy in Iraq is a great challenge. In Iraqi Kurdistan, more than 50% of the population is illiterate. People have never had the opportunity of living in a democratic state. The toppling of Saddam’s regime in 2003 gave the chance to begin the rebuilding of a democratic Iraq. Since 2003, many local organisations and independent medias began working in the region. WADI supports local NGOs in their efforts to advance democracy.

Regular seminars and learning opportunities are offered by WADI’s women centers on democracy and human rights. During the referendum and election time, WADI organized special election courses for local women who had never participated in elections before. WADI took part in referendum and election monitoring. A report with recommendations was submitted to the Iraqi government.

Since 2006, WADI has supported DHRD Suleymaniah (Democracy and Human rights Development organization). DHRD focuses particularly on judicial work and human rights.

Currently, WADI and DHRD are supporting two projects:

  • Legal Aid Programme
    The Legal aid programme (LAP) is an independent network of lawyers, judges and other jurists, working in cooperation with local authorities to improve the practice of law in the region. The network focuses on research, documentation and counselling. It assists and advises, especially women, during trials and holds a ‘court-watch’ project. The network also offers training courses for lawyers and officials. LAP is monitored by DHRD and WADI.
  • Center for Women´s Rights in Suleymaniah (the center will open in spring 2008)

10) Prisoners Projects

Since 1995, WADI has supported prisoners by providing medical assistance and education programmes in order to encourage their reintegration into society. The programme focuses on juveniles and female prisoners. Iraqi law doesn't protect women and children from imprisonment. Children can be imprisoned once they are 7 years old. Many women are imprisoned for being suspects of prostitution, or for revenging domestic violence and forced marriages.

In 1995, WADI conducted a successful campaign against capital punishment for women. Since then, WADI has supported prisoners in the women's and youth prisons of Arbil and Suleymaniah. The youngsters and women participate in hairdressing and sewing workshops, handicraft and literacy courses as well as blacksmith workshops, English and computer courses. Women released from prison get assistance to open their own shops. WADI financed literacy classes, health care, workshops and libraries where prisoners can find books, newspapers and magazines.

In 1998, WADI started a large programme for men prisoners in Suleymaniah prison. Computer courses, carpentry and blacksmith workshops were organized, and literacy and English courses were offered. In 1999, WADI encouraged and supported the foundation of a cultural group called Horizon. Horizon publishes a newspaper in prison. In 2000, they published a book containing prisoners' articles about issues concerning Kurdish public life.

Your support for any of our programs and activities would be warmly welcomed and much appreciated.


WADI - Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation
Headquarter: Herborner Str. 62, 60439 Frankfurt/ M, Germany
Tel ++49-69-57002440, Fax: 57002444, Email:

WADI Branches in Iraq:
Sulaimanyah: Tel: 00964-770-1588173
Arbil Office: Tel: 0044-22331349
Homepage: www.wadinet.de