Johanna Higgs giving a presentation to a group of students at the University of Kurdistan Hawler. Photo: Supplied
ERBIL, Kurdistan region – Johanna Higgs is a women’s rights researcher who has travelled to at least 108 countries in the world. Now she is in the Kurdistan Region investigating sexual violence against women in the region.
At almost 34 years old, Higgs has travelled to China, Iran, the islands in Vanuatu, where people don’t wear clothes, to Indonesia and Yemen, She’s visited Kurdish farmers in Iran, rode a pushbike across Zimbabwe, crossed the Darien Gap, between Panama and Colombia, visited Indonesia, attended bucks parties in Yemen, danced with Maasai in Tanzania. She has certainly lived an adventurous life.
It all started for Higgs at 19 years of age. Growing up in Perth, in Western Australia, very removed from poverty and war, she saved up all her money and bought a plane ticket to Europe and from there ended up in the Balkans.
Arriving in the Balkans 5 or 6 years after the last civil war in Kosovo, it was her first experience in a post-conflict region. “I was so shocked because there were blown up buildings everywhere.”
“I remember seeing this big pile of rubble where a house had been blown up, and a little boy was playing with a truck in the middle of this rubble. I was so shocked that a child should have to play in such conditions”, she said, the experience setting her on a new life trajectory.
In each country she visits, what she’s most interested in is listening to women’s stories, particularly women’s stories of violence, noting that the women’s experiences are the same everywhere in the world, because violence against women is a global phenomenon. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, discrimination, and lack of laws to protect women are common experiences for women in the countries Higgs has visited.
“There are certain things that are the same in this world, the desire for freedom and dignity, to be treated well, with respect and dignity”, she said. “Wherever I am in the world I find that women are denied freedom and dignity.”
Higgs founded the charitable organisation Project Monma in 2013 to help raise awareness of the issue of global violence against women.
In the Kurdistan Region, Higgs has been investigating sexual harassment of women and girls.
“On this trip I found that all the girls that I spoke with, of all backgrounds, Yezidis, Syrian refugees, Kurdish Iraqi women, and foreigners had stories of being followed on the street, having men making inappropriate comments, staring and being inappropriately touched,” Higgs said.
“All of the men that I spoke to as well confirmed that this was something that goes on. Interestingly, I asked all the men I spoke to if men know that it causes women harm. They all said yes, but commented that men will do it anyways.”
At a public meeting in the Italian village neighbourhood of Erbil organised by Project Monma, men and women openly discussed their everyday experiences of harassment and violence.
A few days earlier, a group of mainly foreign men and women had organised a rally to draw attention to women’s rights issues timed to coincide with worldwide anti-Donald Trump rallies.
Women protesting in central Erbil as part of worldwide anti-Trump marches on January 21. Photo: Vanessa Powell
The female protestors at the rally experienced a range of violence, two women had their hair pulled and another was badly groped.
As explained to Rudaw English by one of the protesters who did not wish to be named, “I looked behind me and I saw another woman having her hair pulled,” she said. “I turned around and told the man very clearly to stop but he just looked at me and laughed.”
“All around us were a bunch of boys laughing, so I decided to run to a taxi to get out of the crowd. As I was running to the taxi someone pulled my hair so badly that I sprained my neck.”
The group of male and female protesters holding signs were blocked in and encircled by a group of about 20 men before the protest eventually dispersed peacefully, but left the group feeling disaffected and powerless that their message was missed.
Iraq ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, coming 93 out of 102 countries in terms of gender equality, according to the OECD Development Centre.
Legal protections such as the Law on Combating Violence within Family, No. 8 was introduced in 2011, which prohibits female circumcision and criminalises forced labour, child marriage, verbal, physical and psychological abuse of girls and women and child abuse, as well as child labour in attempts to improve conditions for women in the Kurdistan Region.
One area where the Kurdistan Region has made positive progress has been on the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). While data by WADI, an Iraqi-German NGO, shows that up to 72% of women in the region have been cut, a recent study by Heartland Alliance shows there has been a drastic decline in the practice. When comparing mothers to daughters, only 10.7% of daughters report being cut, the study shows. In Halabja the practice has been all but eradicated, due to increased campaigning and better education.