YOUNG VOICES

The People Of Iraq Risked Their Lives To Vote. So Why Do We Take It So Lightly?

09/04/2015 08:38 BST | Updated 09/04/2015 08:59 BST

Baghdad, April 2014. Congregations of Iraqis queue for hours at polling stations to cast their vote, defiant in the face of suicide bomb threats.

The danger is imminent; the United Nations issues instructions to its staff not to go outside. Twelve people are killed in attacks across the country. Every female candidate who stood for election in Iraq's northern city of Mosul has since been systematically executed by Isis.

All in the name of democracy.

Security forces stand guard outside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Baghdad, April 30, 2014. Iraq is holding its third parliamentary elections since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. More than 22 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots to choose 328 lawmakers out of more than 9,000 candidates. Officials say suicide bombers have targeted polling centers as soldiers and security forces cast ballots ahead of parliamentary elections.

United Kingdom, April 2015. 25 days until England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland votes for their next leader. Latest polls show decided they won't vote. Russell Brand is urging the public not to bother at all.

The government, meanwhile, has been forced to squander £500,000 in a desperate attempt to tempt the country's educated to even register to vote. Domino's is also doing its bit - and giving away free pizza to students who register.

This is the face of democracy in the UK.

The scene at the polling station at Market Hall in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, as the General Election got underway across the UK.

In Iraq, the right to vote is a precious commodity. The April elections reported a 62% turnout, with voters braving violence, bombs and even the threat of execution in the name of democratic freedom.

"Isis has systematically executed the women candidates who stood for parliament in Mosul," Frances Guy, the-then UN women representative in Iraq bluntly tells me.

"These women knew the threat they faced. They would be targeted for being 'un-Islamic'. But that didn't stop them from standing."

During the election, the UN women team, who were then based in Baghdad, were instructed not to go out. "We were told not to leave the house, not to go to the airport, not to do anything, because it was very dangerous.

"Yet there were all these congregations of people were going out to stand in queues at ballot stations.

"They were jumpy, as they were a target for bombers," Frances explains. "But nevertheless, people turned out to vote."

Iraqi women give the victory signs while showing their inked fingers after casting votes at a polling center in Baghdad, Wednesday, April 30, 2014

During the 2013 local elections in the UK, a mere 32% of young people voted. In the run-up to this year's general election, one in eight youths have already decided not to vote. Stats from February revealed 30% had yet to even register.

Photographs from around the world of queues at polling stations are a stark contrast to much of the UK's attitude to voting.

“You see that if you look at some elections in Africa or other places, such as India.

People queue to cast their vote during the Delhi Assembly Elections, on February 7, 2015 in New Delhi, India

"Their vote is not worth more than ours," Frances points out, somewhat painfully. "Sometimes it's even worth less than ours as it's manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. But nevertheless they turn out to vote."

And, despite the imminent danger, despite the corrupt politicians, Iraqis still voted.

"We’re talking about people who were unhappy with their politicians, they felt they were corrupt, and responsible for the mess Iraq was in.

"But they still wanted to exercise their voice. They had some faith I suppose the elections themselves would be fair - even if the politicians weren’t. The process was seen as free and fair, therefore your vote, if you exercised it, would go to the person you were voting for. That was an important point for them, after the Saddam Hussein regime."

Burned vehicles remain in the Industrial Stadium a day after a series of bombs exploded in eastern Baghdad, Saturday, April 26, 2014, As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence

The UN ran training programmes for women who were hoping to stand as candidates - as well as for those who were being forced to stand to fulfil quotas.

The programmes helped the develop the skills they needed, such as dealing with the media and public speaking, which, for many, was something they had never done before.

"Public speaking was difficult for them. Presenting themselves was a skill very few of them had." Frances explains. "They were getting out of their comfort zone."

Even those who were outspoken were conscious of being role models. Women in powerful positions who could wield influence was a dangerous notion.

"If you're putting your head above the parapet, you're more likely to be targeted. One of the training sessions we held was in Erbil, but people came from as far as Mosul and Nineveh - an area which has now been taken, and ransacked, by Isis.

"One woman came in late and wasn't concentrating. She told us it was because there had been a bomb outside her house two days before. She was limping and in a lot of pain, but the biggest problem for her was her kids - they'd been there when the bomb had gone off and now she didn't know where she could house them so they'd be safe.

"If they were associated with their mother they would be in danger, but she couldn't not stand."

Frances pauses, and then adds: "I wonder what happened to her... Oh dear."

Workers prepare to place a campaign poster for candidate Mayada Hassan al-Tamimi of the Iraq coalition, ahead of the country's parliamentary election, in Baghdad al-Jadidah district, Iraq, Friday, April 25, 2014

She swiftly moves on, explaining why these women took such high risks when there was so much at stake.

"Once you've taken that first step, and you're agitating for women's voices to be heard, you've made that step out of the house and into a public sphere, so that's the difficult part. Perhaps the standing for parliament is a natural succession, and an easier step.

"Some of the women had been society activists, but even the most conservative women, who outwardly looked traditional, were nevertheless quite radical in terms of standing up for women’s rights. There’s a wee bit of the sense that men had made such a bad job of things, that women should be given a chance."

But even the women who were forced to stand as candidates by their husbands, fathers, brothers, in order to fill quota spaces, were targeted by Isis.

A few of the women who were forced to stand and participated in the UN training courses started to realise they had talents. The UN was recognising their importance and the women realised if they worked together they could stand up for themselves, as illustrated by Kurdish women who passed a law on female genital mutilation and domestic violence in 2011.

"They got together and made it happen. They realised there were things they could do. So then some of these women will stand again, for themselves, and not because they've been told to."

Women walk past an election campaign poster for candidate Mai Nayef al-Rahal of the Iraq coalition at Kahramana Square in Baghdad, Iraq,Tuesday April 1, 2014. The election campaign kicked off Tuesday, Iraqi towns and cities were flooded with posters of the candidates for parliament seats on main streets and intersections.

Frances is keen to highlight despite the threats, women did stand during the April 2014 Iraq election, and, in Mosul, they did well in elections and were voted in.

"You've also got to remember, it was voluntary to vote, not compulsory. And, as far as I know, women turned out to vote almost as much as men. It was a very good turnout.

"Anyone going to vote was taking some kind of risk. It would be easy for them to stay at home, nobody would say anything, because of the cultural context. They weren't expected to be out in public.

"Women standing as candidates and those turning out to vote were absolutely aware of the threat of being executed. During the regional council elections in 2013 one of the female candidates we trained was killed, so they knew they were running a risk."

Iraqi citizens leave after casting their votes at a polling center during the country's provincial elections in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, April 20, 2013. Polls opened amid tight security in Iraq on Saturday for regional elections in the country's first vote since US withdrawal

It wasn't just women in the political sphere who were targeted, either. Doctors, lawyers, women professionals in general have been targeted by Isis.

"It’s partly because perhaps these women are slightly less conservative than others. Public executions of these people.. it’s shocking."

Frances also cites an example of working in Ethiopia 15 years ago when she was part of an organisation trying to encourage opposition parties to stand against the current leader.

"I will always remember the leader of one of the parties telling us: 'Do you realise what you are asking us to do? I can tell you that what will happen is this: If I put up candidates and we have political rallies, my people will be killed.

'What you are asking me to do in the name of so-called democracy is to have my supporters killed. I am prepared to go along with it because I agree with what you are saying, but I want you to understand exactly what you are asking us to do.'

"And he was right," Frances sighs. "That was exactly what happened. We didn't force him to do anything but all the same..

"But again, people still turned out to vote."

Ethiopians wait to cast their ballot 14 May 2000, at a polling station in Addis Ababa. Voting began today in Ethiopia's general election, despite renewed border fighting against Eritrean forces.

"So yes," she addresses me directly. "If you're writing a piece about what lengths people go to vote, they go to remarkable lengths."

The experience was humbling, Frances says.

"When you see people going to vote despite the fact they might get blown up, people coming to train to stand as candidates when they've had their car bombed three days before. When you see people's commitment to work with what was an ineffective system imposed on them by Western outsiders, but a system they nevertheless wanted to make their own. Yes, it makes you very humble indeed."

In the UK, she concludes, "we have it so easy."

"Maybe we should use our vote more effectively?", she asks me. When I smile in agreement, she answers her own question: "Definitely."


Iraq's 2014 Elections