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Sexual Harassment In Iraqi Kurdistan: A Problem For All Girls

I'm in Iraqi Kurdistan. It's my third time here. Each time I come, it's to learn more about the different forms of violence and discrimination facing women and girls in the region as part of my work with my women's rights organization Project Monma.

I'm in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It's my third time here. Each time I come, it's to learn more about the different forms of violence and discrimination facing women and girls in the region as part of my work with my women's rights organization Project Monma.

Each time I come, the stories and tales of indiscriminate violence and blatantly unfair discrimination, hurt.

This time, the war against ISIS is raging and as I hunker down in the Kurdish capital Erbil, reports of fighting filter in from the various journalists and filmmakers on the front lines with Mosul who are documenting the violence as it unfolds.

Military helicopters fly overhead and the small city is brimming with refugees and IDPs who have fled ISIS's violent regime of barbarity and slavery.

As always, I'm worried about the safety of the women and girls.

Throughout the world, in both times of war and peace women and girls face the threat of violence. This could include violence from their husbands, sexual violence or blatant discrimination that prevents women and girls from participating fully in public life.

It also includes sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is one of the most pervasive problems facing women in both wartime and peace. It's a global phenomenon and it happens on the street, in the workplace and in bars. It also happens in refugee camps and at schools. It can happen anywhere and it's downright harmful.

So, if we know that women and girls are harassed in times of peace and when they should be safe, what then happens to women and girls, when made vulnerable by the brutality of war?

I went to Iraqi Kurdistan to find out.

I met with women from women and girls from throughout Iraqi Kurdistan including refugee women from Syria, Yezidi women who had fled ISIS atrocities, local Iraqi Kurdish women and foreign women who had come to live and work in Kurdistan.

Every single woman and girl I met, reported some form of sexual harassment.

It was evident that sexual harassment is a serious problem from my own experiences. Cars slowed down to follow me down the road and men consistently stared at me in an aggressive and lewd manner. 'It's because they think you're easy,' explained one Kurdish friend over lunch one day. 'They think that all Western women are easy, that's why they stare at you like that.' I have heard such comments repeatedly throughout my travels through the Middle East. It's linked to Western conceptions of freedom and the idea that the more free you are as a woman, the more of a whore you are.

This disrespect became violently visible at a protest against violence against women. A small group of men and women had gathered in the centre of Erbil to protest violence against women. As they chanted 'women's rights are human rights' a small group of local males formed a group around them. I noticed that the men were standing way too close to the protesters. Suddenly, one of the women shouted and I saw a man push another man.

The protesters appeared to become nervous and started to move away. I heard one American woman say, 'I'm getting out of here.'

Another woman hurried past and shouted, 'they're pulling hair.'

At this point the situation was becoming violent, here were a group of men and women protesting violence against women and the local men were assaulting the women. As I watched the lecherous faces of the men surrounding us I felt threatened and wanted to leave.

Lili Crum, an American living and working in Iraqi Kurdistan was at the women's Women's March and was the woman who was assaulted while protesting. Having lived in the Middle East for 6 years she says women's rights are often not honored or valued and so she felt that it was important to attend the march.

'After I realized that I was being groped, one of the male onlookers began to yell at him and I tried to push him away, but the rest of the men were smiling and taking photos,' she explained.

Harassment in Kurdistan is a common occurrence according to Crum. Men take photos of her while at the gym without her permission. On one occasion she was called a whore by a man as she walked down the street which she attributed to the colour of her skin and hair and her gender.

For a group of Yezidi women living in Erbil, the harassment is no better. They fled Sinjar in 2014 after ISIS stormed their small village, killing thousands and taking thousands of Yezidi women and girls to be sold in slave markets. This small group of women had managed to escape and make it to the safety of Erbil however, living in Erbil has not entirely brought the safety they were seeking.

Sitting on a small mat on the side of the construction site where they had taken shelter, they described how when they first arrived to Erbil, groups of drunk men would come by to harass them. They described the experience as a 'living hell.'

One of the young women, Adee Mchow explained that sexual harassment is a regular part of their daily lives. It happens on the street and when they go out to do their daily activities.

For two young Syrian girls Jihan Mousa and Roj Jiwhar living in Qushtapa camp not far from Erbil, sexual harassment has also been a part of their daily experience. They fled to Northern Iraq after ISIS invaded their homes in Syria to seek safety, yet they too have had daily problems with harassment.

Jiwhar explained how she had been harassed while working in a mall in Erbil. 'An Arab man from Bagdad wouldn't leave me alone. He was drunk. Security came and took him but he said that he would be waiting for me outside. So the security had to help me get a taxi.'

Mekaieel Sabir, an 80-year-old man from Kurdistan attributes many of the problems facing women and girls in Kurdistan to traditions. There are cases where girls may not be allowed to go to school or get a job because then she would be seen by men. In the case of harassment, he attributes this to men without manners.

Whilst harassment is mostly certainly linked to men without manners, it would appear that the problem of sexual harassment goes well beyond that. Considering the large percentage of cases of sexual harassment where men seem uninhibited by consequences, it would appear that sexual harassment has its roots in the way that women are perceived within their communities. When men feel entitled to objectify, belittle and degrade women through relentless sexually predatory behavior, there is certainly a wider problem that needs to be addressed.

The lack of shame and obvious lack of fear of consequences demonstrated by the men at the women's rights protest for example is evidence of this.

If we have any chance of bringing an end to this problem of sexual harassment we all have a responsibility to stand up and ensure that harassers do not feel such entitlement to humiliate, degrade and assault others. Men should not feel the confidence to harass women in public malls, to disrespect women based on their culture or to threaten women fleeing from war. We all need to speak up and demand that at no times is sexual harassment is acceptable at any time, anywhere.