On March 15, 2018 in commemoration of International Women’s Day, Women’s Freedom Forum held a parallel event at the United Nations CSW62 (Commission on the Status of Women 62) in New York. The Panel Discussion titled, “Challenges & Opportunities in Empowering Rural Girls for SDG5″ took place at the Armenian Convention Center Room.
This panel was moderated by Lynn Dykstra, WFF Representative to the UN. She lively engaged the audience in between each of the speakers to give their insight into challenges and solutions to the many aspects of empowering women and girls.
The following is the text of speeches by the panelists:
Khawla Wakkaf, Syrian Attorney and Legal Fellow at Women Enabled International, Inc.
Every year, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. That is about 23 girls every minute. So, by the time I finish my speech, about 115 girls will be married.
Now despite the fact that this number shows a decrease in the global percentage of child marriage during the last decade, we still have a long road ahead of us to achieve the global target and end child marriage by 2030. In fact, in Some countries like Syria the early AND forced marriage have increased dramatically during the last seven years.
Child marriage existed before the Syrian conflict, but as the conflict escalated the child marriage rates significantly increased and now it is almost four times higher among Syrian refugees than among Syrians before the conflict.
For example: the percentage increased in Jordan camps to 25 per cent in 2013 until it reached 44% at the end of 2015. according to the Figures from Jordan’s population census
There are no accurate data about the number of child marriages inside Syria, but the percentage of child marriage has doubled since the beginning of the Syrian conflict according to the Syrian ministry of justice (it was 7 percent before the war and now 14%)
These numbers do not include informal traditional marriages (Aurfi) that are unregistered and are actually much higher. These types of marriages are often not consensual and lead in many cases to abandonment where the girl finds herself suddenly in charge of her newborn.
It is very important to understand that the issue of early marriage is not an isolated from the other humanitarian problems facing Syrian refugees. We need to look at this practice and connect it to the other challenges facing this population in order to understand why these numbers increased.
Now there are two main reason for that:
1) Poverty and economic insecurity: With limited ability to work in host countries, most Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty and most of them lack basic human rights like food, shelter and access to health care. These horrific conditions have lead Syrian families to force their daughters to get married in an early age as they view her as an economic burden. In many cases, the father who is unable to meet the financial needs of his family, would sell the daughter into forced marriage, “often with much older men in exchange for dowry’ paid by the groom.
2) Protection and social reasons, mostly related to traditions and preserving the honor of the family as sexual harassment and rape have increased substantially during the last few years in refugee camps. As a result, more and more Syrian parents are forcing their girls into early marriage in an effort to ensure their protection and to avoid harassment.
Now the situation inside Syria is worse. Girls who were forced into early marriage where the husband turned out to be abusive, lack the resources, social and legal support to seek the help they need in these situations. It is important to note that until now, there are no Syrian women’s rights organizations in Syria. Civil society organizations that advocate for the rights of Syrian women and girls are unregistered and are forced to work under the umbrella of the government. Additionally, there are only 3 shelters for victims of domestic violence. All of them are located in Damascus while the other cities lack any shelters. Subsequently, married girls who are subject to rape and domestic violence cannot seek any help especially in the absence of laws that criminalize things like marital rape. Therefore, they remain trapped in the cycle of violence and abuse.
The immediate action starts with tackling the reasons that pushed these numbers up. That includes providing basic humanitarian assistance like shelter, food and healthcare to Syrian families inside and outside Syria.
Interventions must also focus on providing economic opportunities for Syrian refugees and empowering girls through education. Studies have shown that girls who continue their education are less likely to get married before 18. These girls are also more likely to find jobs and to become financially independent.
We must establish shelters for survivals of rape and domestic violence in every safe city in Syria.
We must call on the Syrian government to abolish all discriminatory personal status laws, lift all the reservations to CEDAW in particular article 16, and to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
Syrian girls have lost family members, their home, dreams and memories during the conflict. We must enable them to have control over the only thing they have left” their bodies.
Ahed Festuk, one of the first leading women activists from Aleppo, Syria.
I was asked to speak on specific points. These include
- My work in the Syrian hospitals
- My continued work in humanitarian aid programs and
- Examples of small steps, big steps that help women in the war-torn areas move forward
By training I am an accountant. When the Syrian revolution started, a small group of friends and I took the burden of risking our lives to organize and participate in peaceful demonstrations. During this time, knowing that a lot of the educated class (e.g., doctors and nurses) would flee Syria, my friends who were medical students and doctors knew that there would be a gap that needed to be filled. In 2011 I was trained in providing advanced First Aid, like suturing open wounds, starting IVs, stopping bleeders, splinting an arm or leg. All that being done WHILE being bombed and shelled.
A few months later the bombardments started everywhere by Assad air forces. My country started bleeding and my people began suffering. After my family left I decided to stay and continue to work for my country. With my first aid training in hand, I worked at a local hospital in Aleppo: Dar Al Shifa Hospital. As the war was developing, so did my medical experience. I now know how to intubate and insert a chest tube.
In Nov, 2012 Dar Al Shifa was leveled by an air raid…It was never opened again and I couldn’t continue providing relief there anymore.
My eagerness to help others never diminished, specifically the widowed women left by the war. A small group of young people and myself started a program that found sponsors living overseas for widowed Syrian women. This provided much needed immediate financial support while we trained the women in different skills in order for them to be able to sustain themselves and their children (e.g. business training, sales, teaching, computer training, etc.). Keeping in mind that these women have been completely dependent on their husbands and/or brothers. They never worked in an office, rarely left their home except for social visits, and these simple trainings gave them a freedom they never had before.
A year before I left Syria in 2015, I worked for The Institute for War and Peace Reporting. I was trained to become a first aid instructor in hostile environment (very similar to my work in the hospital). I trained women in Aleppo, so when their neighborhoods were bombed they could provide immediate medical help to their community and ultimately save lives.
Some examples that helped Syrian women to move forward include
Experiences from the intellectual groups who managed local societies had inspired the international organizations to establish huge projects and create new jobs. Ultimately, we started to see women achieving success in the fields of civil societies and opposition to violence. Psychological support attempting to remove them from the hostile environment created by the ongoing war was achieved via multiple activities for them and their children.
I’m going to wrap up here with a short story: a young mom who was one of the trainees had told me while crying in tears” the thing that encouraged me to attend this course was the loss of my child during an air raid. “A shrapnel penetrated his small body, he bled to death and at that time I didn’t know how to save my child”.
The successes for the women in the Syrian war zones are achieved first in small steps. Small steps grow to much larger steps. Momentum is gained; and one by one women are empowered and lives are saved. I am honored to share the steps with the brave and powerful women of Syria. Do not ever forget them. Thank you.
Upasana Chauhan, UN Representative of ManUp Campaign
I was born and raised in a small town in India. While growing up, I would always wonder and ask myself that what do I want to be when I grow up. The answer would always be around the freedom to breathe and do anything but that’s not a given. While growing up in the 90’s in India, I could not find many role models around me in my little town of women doing something amazing or being independent. In those days, except for teachers, there were not many other roles of women in the working world in the little community and even that was a battle won for some and not taken for granted. But that was not my Dream. That’s not where I felt I belonged or heard or even felt myself. Therefore, I chose to become my own Role Model and my own Superwoman. I chose to study STEM when I was expected to just stick to arts because boys in my community were having hard time clearing the STEM exams so, of course, how can a girl do it. Of course, I went ahead and proved them wrong and eventually started working for the Fortune 500 Corporates. But that was just the beginning and I never forgot my roots and girls who are still stuck there in the same lifecycle and unable to break it. Therefore, I pledged to work for the equal opportunities and education for girls and women since a very young age. I didn’t have many tools when I began except the power of technology.
I strongly believe – Start from where you are and what you have – but just start. So, I started my NGO at the age of 21 and began giving e-commerce opportunities to the women with no access to technology. Currently I am associated with lot of organizations from grassroots level to the UN to fight and stand for their rights and equal participation on the table. It’s very important for girls to not only help implement the existing laws by going to the law agencies but it is also important for them to sit and make the laws for themselves. For example, sanitary pads should not be taxed and should not be a man’s decision. Similarly, at every village level in India, Governments have the Child and Women committees but none of those committees have young girls or even women as members of the committees. Hence the women’s pleas are left unheard. Similarly, at the UN , its time that leaders now give the floor to not only women but also next generation women.
There are so many laws already in place to end child marriage, to end witch hunting, for rape and violence against women. But are any of these laws able to end the violence? NO. Therefore, it is time to take control of the law implementing agencies as well in your hands. In order to curb Child Marriage, the Govt of Rajasthan, India has a law that in order to print the wedding card, the groom and bride must be 18. But the parents get away by not showing their birth certificates. Rapes are done by fathers, juvenile boys or men of all ages but the family members and boys below 18 walk away because of loopholes in the law that protects them. If an 18 year old can not only rape a girl but also take her intestine out in a running bus then how is he a Child? He walked away without punishment.
- we need to work in collaboration with multi stakeholders like Governments, Corporations, NGOs.
- Legislation must be enacted and enforced to eliminate early and forced marriage.
- Female genital mutilation must be outlawed and work must be completed with community leaders to enlist their support in ending FGM.s.
- There must be investment in rural infrastructure including reliable and safe public transport to ensure that girls and young women can access technology, services, quality healthcare and education.
- National plans for achieving SDG 5 should be anchored in inter-generational partnerships with young women at the local level, along with mobilizing young men and boys to foster enabling environments for gender equality.
Lucky Gill, Founder of Global Girl Power Foundation
The 62nd Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. One would think that more than half a century of discussing the challenges of our women, creating policies and goals for advancement and equality by organizations, would result in an International Women’s day celebration where both genders are celebrating women.
That is the goal, isn’t it?
Here we are once again discussing the challenges and opportunities for rural women.
Good afternoon distinguished guests and fellow panelists. My name is Lucky Gill, founder ‘Global Girl Power, a global movement committed to the empowerment of women and girls.
We all have unique stories that shape us into the individuals we are today, and I feel honoured to share mine with all of you.
Having a forced arranged marriage at 15 years, 11 months, and 24 days of age to be exact, opened a world of challenges, but also allowed me to see it through a critical lens where I questioned the ‘why’ behind many of the issues women face.
“It’s a girl” were the hardest three words for my mom to hear when I was born in a family of 4 daughters. In shock, she did not see my face for 3 days. My mother, a teacher by profession, chose to give birth to her daughters instead of choosing abortion like my aunts. However, despite being educated, society failed her when she felt that marrying me off , in the unsafe society was the safest alternative. When I gave birth to my daughter, I was told that I had given birth to a stone and with my next pregnancy, I was asked to get my fetus tested.
With our work in India and Nigeria, we know that it is not just the reality of yesterday, this is the reality of today. Women are still facing the worst kind of atrocities such as female feticide, honor killings, trafficking, female genital mutilation and child marriage. Rapes are at all-time high. Violence against women and girls is so deeply rooted but often buried under social & cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Just this year, society failed an eight-month-old baby girl in India and seven-year-old Zainab in Pakistan. State of Haryana had 10 rapes in 10 days in month of January. We live in a world where people are afraid to give birth to the girl child, not because of dowry, but rape. How, then, can we cope with this problem to create safe society for our women and girls?
Change often seems far-fetched and the road to revolution often seems long. We, as the leaders of a change-making are at the forefront of creating this hope – from our heart, and our actions. We know the issue but we need to move past the diagnosis phase. These issues are not limited to developing countries, the rural mentality exists within us. The same problems exist right here in our backyards as well.
Just as polio drops were introduced door-to-door, we need to implement door-to-door education and empowerment so that parents no longer fear the birth of a girl child. By creating mandatory, enforced women’s support groups in every single village, we can carve the path to financial literacy, peer-to-peer empowerment an eventual change in policy-making and implementation of law. Most of all, it allows the 15-year-old me, being shown her way to an arranged marriage, to feel relieved that I have a support system to look up to, that I am not alone and that there is a way out.
Equality is our birth right and we need to embrace it unapologetically and Believe in the power of sisterhood because positive change spreads globally from one woman and girl to another. When a woman is empowered with support and education, she is then able to recognize the brilliant potential within her and become the light of an entire community. She is more likely to stand up against violence, earn a greater living, have a healthier family, support others in her community and continue the surge. That is girl power.
It is one thing to sympathize, but another to empathize and take action. We need to hold our governments and policy makers accountable to see results by the next session. We have tools here that we can use not only to uplift women locally but create a ripple effect globally – a ripple effect of hope and determination.
The woman we are talking about is no different than you and me. Urban or rural – she is just like us and together we will rise up. Because while we are strong, together we are stronger. And together, our voices will change the world. The creation of a safe society begins at home; hope for women in rural areas across the globe begins right here – from me, from you.
Jaslin Kaur, Co-Founder of RefuGirl
As we near 2030, we must review our commitment to gender equality for the Sustainable Development Goals. However, this must include the most marginalized, especially rural women and girls; otherwise, our vision is severely shortsighted. In particular, we must understand the ways in which warfare and conflict further jeopardize the safety and economic security of women and girls. Kenya, for example, has seen heightened instances of sexual violence in their respective conflict zones.
Kenya’s 2007 presidential election cycle saw a race between majority and minority ethnic groups: Kikuyu versus Luo. Political tension grew into violent ethnic warfare, placing Kenya on the brink of civil war. Brown and Sriram’s research in the 2008 African Affairs journal estimate that 1,300 people were killed and 350,000 were displaced. However, the 2008 Human Rights Watch Report, Ballots to Bullets: Organized Political Violence and Kenya’s Crisis of Governance highlighted the Kenyan police force’s complicity in murdering and abusing protestors at large and sexually violating women. Nairobi Women’s Hospital reportedly had 324 patients within a month’s time. Muthoni Wanyeki, Kenyan political scientist, tells us in the African Gender Institute Journal that these rates were three times the normal intake, primarily involving girls and women from low-income areas in Nairobi. The voices of rural women’s resistance was thereby violently disrupted by a Kenyan paramilitary wing, the General Service Unit, as Human Rights Watch reports. They interviewed over 150 Kenyan women who identified this police group as the perpetrators of gender based violence.
While these were certainly egregious violations of women’s bodies, even “safe zones” could not serve as refuge. As Wanyeki tells us, Kenyan women housed at camps for the internally displaced in 2008 also faced sexual exploitation. Girls and women reportedly engaged in transactional sex with volunteer relief workers in exchange for aid. Women who lost their husbands in the post-elections violence were also significantly subjected to sexual violence. All this bears a disturbing resemblance to the recent stories that have broken in Syria, telling us that women and girls have had their bodies exploited by UN-affiliated aid workers in return for humanitarian aid. In addition, Wanyeki tells us that women smallholder farmers in the Rift Valley, Kenya’s breadbasket, women were responsible for subsistence agriculture. Following the violence, though, they had no access to their farms and their economic standing was further jeopardized. This reveals the severe lack of protections for women, and prompts us to be critical of police institutions and the state in taking advantage of this fraught ethno-political climate, especially when they act with impunity.
However, I want to call attention to the necessary reporting that predicted the probability of this post-election gender-based violence manifesting once again. Agnes Odhiambo, researcher and reporter at Human Rights Watch told us in 2017 that the lack of convicted perpetrators and lack of government support in terms of medical care at the time led her conclude that women may be at risk for similar violence in the 2017 elections: again, bifurcated along ethnic groups. Unfortunately, she was correct. She reports that, “Women’s rights groups and activists allege that police raped and sexually harassed women and girls, especially after the electoral commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner.” She adds, “Kenya is obligated under international law to close the impunity gap for sexual violence.”
We must then recognize rape not only as a tool of war, but a tool of silencing and marginalization, which is always gendered. The immense levels of poverty, hunger, and insecurity are further strained by the exploitation and commodification of rural young women and girls’ bodies. In both Kenya and Syria, we do not see state actors heeding the warnings of important civil society organizations organizing around human rights. I therefore urge us call for accountability of police and states, especially when women who have experienced violence continue to experience trauma and pass it on down generations. We can also look to local, grassroots organizations looking to subvert inhumane institutions, such as Freely in Hope in Kenya. They advocate for survivors of forced sexual exploitation, offering educational resources and empowerment programs to help survivors become leaders. We must elevate the voices of women and girls who are being directly affected and invest in their inherent leadership qualities.
As Co-Founder of RefuGirl, I recognize the depressing and exhausting gravity of decreased security for women. However, I also recognize this as an opportunity to elevate women and hone in on important, empowering skills. Through our developing work, we will commit to providing mentorship and leadership skills training to young women and girl refugees and migrants. If I do not give back the resources and privileges I have amassed, I have failed my duty as a leader. With RefuGirl, I envision a world in which young women and girls can become the leaders of tomorrow and fight against the leaders who have failed them. I urge you all to no longer pay lip service to ending gender based violence. Let’s equip women and girls with the tools needed to make themselves seen and heard in a world that wants them to disappear. We can do this together. Thank you.
Luz Maria Utrera, President of Luz Maria Foundation, dedicated to survivors of domestic violence, Argentina, U.S. and globally
My name is Luz Maria Utrera and I am the Founder and President of Fundación Luz Maria in Argentina and Luz Maria Foundation in New York. I am here to speak of the global struggle of Intimate Partner Violence and the intersectionality’s that are faced by many women. A struggle that persist in rural areas around the world.
The Foundation began addressing these issues in the city of Santiago del Estero, my hometown, and later in the rural area of Villa Robles Argentina. It was through simple actions of being present, offering support, and giving our time and resources that we supported women.
Luz Maria Foundation began through my work practicing law in the urban and rural areas of Argentina. It was in Santiago del Estero that I provided legal support to survivors of domestic violence helping them in the court process. For many in Argentina this is a life or death situation. Every 30 hours a woman dies in Argentina as a result of domestic violence.
The system to address domestic violence is new in Argentina as the law just passed it in 2009 in Buenos Aires and in 2011 in the city of Santiago del Estero.
We began our work in my home province with 250,000 living in the city. As our work continued I traveled across the nation working on these issues and participated in conferences that expanded my own knowledge and allowed me to testify to my own experience.
We are working to join efforts and create shelter for battered women as there currently is no space for women who are out of home. We supported Programs like Now (New Opportunities for Women) and provide Economic Empowerment through financial support. The goal is to improve the quality of life and prevent re-victimization.
When talking of my work it is the hundreds of names of the people we’ve helped that makes me continue. It is the power of spirit in these women that encourages me every day! The foundation has provided legal counsel and worked with social services to ensure that these families could separate from their abusers. Their stories and my story are the reasons I am here speaking to you today.
The issue of Domestic Violence is not national; it’s global and that is the reason we decided to step it up here in NY in 2015. Here we worked specifically with the UN. We achieved ECOSOC Status and DPI Association. We are 501c3 Tax exempt organization .We support global campaigns like the Planet 50-50 by 2030.
I traveled with the UN globally to continue to be a voice of change, in places like Morocco telling how we can bring global impact.
The challenges we face are many and global, but through action we can achieve great things.
Through communication, and technologies now more than ever we can make a difference. We know an estimated 35% of women have experienced partner violence (UN statistic), we also know that this is not the end of their story!
The harrowing statistic of the 12 million people who posted the #MeToo began anew the conversation that no survivor is alone.
We must leave here with hope and knowledge that survivors should never face an uncertain future alone. We must leave here together, for together we can ensure global networks are here to support survivors! We, as the UN set forth the Declaration of Human Rights, in which we ensured the right to Life, Liberty, and SECURITY of person. This declaration transcends national boundaries, and reaches deep into counties, provinces, and small communities alike. We have the obligation to act for those who cannot be present to tell their stories here. By providing a platform for all women to speak up against injustice, Domestic Violence or other, rural or urban. In accordance with Sustainable Development Goal 5, it is our responsibility to empower women for all women for the future of women.
Shahin Momenian, Immigration Lawyer
Good afternoon, it is a pleasure to speak with you today. My name is Shahin. I live near Washington, DC. I graduated from Tehran University law school just before the revolution in Iran. I obtained my Master’s Degree in law from Howard University College of Law. I practice mostly in immigration and family law.
Today I want to talk about the role of Iranian women in the recent uprisings in Iran, then about Hijab, and lastly, the issues of women in rural areas.
In the recent uprising of ordinary Iranians across 142 cities and towns, women played a major role. This is not unusual in Iran. Throughout the history of Iran, women have played major roles to establish justice and democracy. They seek equal rights with men, but their major concern is to have a democratic government. The current Iranian government violates women’s human rights and brutally punishes those who stand up for these rights.
During the constitutional movement of 1905-1911, women armed themselves to fight the government alongside of the men, participated in demonstrations, and financially supported the movement by selling their jewelry. But unfortunately their rights were still disregarded. On August 5, 1906 the constitution was drafted. It did not grant women the right to vote or to go to school.
Then in the Revolution of 1979, women participated in demonstrations and financially supported the revolution. Not only were they not granted any rights, but they also lost most of the rights that they had gained little by little from 1906 to 1978, such as the right to divorce and retain custody of their children.
According to Articles 1133 and 1043 of the Civil Code, only men have the right to divorce their wives and retain legal custody of their children.
According to the Civil Codes. a woman cannot have physical custody even of her newborn son and custody of her daughter after age 7 in case of divorce. I always review the divorce decree/ certificate of my clients. Recently I was reviewing one and, suddenly I asked my client, “Did you buy your daughter from your ex-husband?” She said “yes”. Since my client did not have the right to divorce, she gave up half of her dowry. Since her daughter was over 7 years of age, she could not get physical custody of her daughter. My client gave up the rest of her dowry and still No legal custody exists! She has to get authorization from the father of her child for almost everything from traveling, school, medical treatment. If she remarries, she will lose what custody she has.
In another case, after the divorce the father disappeared, but the court substituted itself to protect the rights of the father. The physical custody was with the mother but the legal custody intended for the father, went to the court until the father could be found.
Sometimes I think how valuable, important and powerful a piece of fabric which covers our heads must be to those in power in Iran, who either forcefully unveil or mandatorily veil us.
In 1935, the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty who took power in Iran, forced the unveiling of women in order to modernize the country. As a result, many women activists stayed at home. They did not like unveiling.
In 1979, after one month into the revolution, women were ordered to wear hijab when they came out into the streets. I would like to point out that in an article published in April 10, 1982 in Etelaa’at newspaper, Iran’s former chief prosecutor, Ayatollah Moussavi Tabrizi, states: “Anyone who rejects the principle of hijab, is an apostate and the punishment for apostasy under Islamic law is death.”
In the current 2018 uprising, about 29 women were arrested. According to articles 102 to 105 of the Penal Code (regarding mandatory veiling) the punishment is 74 lashes or 1 to 2 months imprisonment if they can’t pay the fine. Most women end up in jail up to 2 years. No government should have the right to make a woman cover her head or have a say in her clothing. Our clothing is our choice, and our decision to wear hijab or not, is our right and everyone should respect that.
I grew up in a very small city, near the farms. I graduated from Law School at the time of the revolution, I was told that I could not be a judge or practice as an attorney. (According to Articles 115 and 163 of the Constitution, women are banned from Judgeship and Presidency) Therefore I decided to be a teacher and work around my childhood city.
I noticed most of the young girls could not afford to continue their education due to financial problems. Girls do not believe that an education will provide them with a better life. If they cannot get a good education, they cannot get a good job and they end up in an unwanted marriage. To help these women, we must financially empower them through education and jobs. If we achieve this for one generation, it would be a model for the next and future generations.
In all the issues that I have talked about, a democratic government would play a major role in supporting the equal rights of women such as choosing to wear hijab or not; or providing education and financial opportunities for women.
Unfortunately, the current Iranian government does not support the rights of women. It violates them, in all aspects. It brutally punishes, and imposes unfair jail sentences for women. And their attorneys are punished as well! Ms. Narges Mohammadi, Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh and other attorneys end up jail just because they supported and worked hard for their clients. The government keeps the children in jail with their mothers, and so many children grow up in jail. They keep pregnant woman in jail.
There are so many discriminatory laws and stories from my clients that I want to tell you, but of course they won’t fit in today’s schedules.
There is a lot of injustice around the world. By first educating ourselves, and all women and girls, and acknowledging the challenges, we can then take action both locally and globally. This will build toward equality and prosperity. Women in Iran want their human rights acknowledged and supported. As a lawyer, I am proud to represent and empower so many women inside Iran or those migrating abroad.
So I ask the thousands of women here at CSW62 and around the world to become informed of the issues of gender equality in Iran and act to help us acheive our rights. With understanding and action, we will leap forward toward advancement for all women around the world, one case at a time.
I thank the Women’s Freedom Forum and the UN CSW 62 for the opportunity to share our mutual cause. It is an honor to be in your presence.
Mitra Samani, Board of Directors of Women’s Freedom Forum, Former Political Prisoner in Iran
As we are celebrating International Women’s Day here in New York, the home of The United Nations, I’ve noticed something interesting:
In SDG 2030, 17 points: number 5 is “Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls” & “Climate Action, Change is number 13. Notwithstanding its importance, number 13th has received actions much more quickly and swiftly than number 5!
In the words of Nelson Mandela: “The prison system of a government reflects the intrinsic characteristic and properties of that government in the most concise and exposed way”.
My name is Mitra Samani. I was born in a middle-class family in Tehran.
Let me just say, by no means, due to time restriction, one can even articulate fully one event or story, let alone a lifetime story.
I was a 15-year-old during the revolution, so eager to participate in our newly found freedom for school projects, publishing newsletters, etc. Yet so soon after its victory in February 1978, came the restrictions on women. The first order was for women to cover their heads. Something that I became aware of as an adult: misogyny is the pillar of Iran’s Theocracy.
I was arrested at 18, spent 4 years in the notorious Evin prison and twice at solitary confinement in Gohar-Dasht prison.
The torture and beating started immediately. First, they tied my hands and feet to a bed, flogged with an electrical cable to my feet. After an hour or so, they forced me to two large glasses of water and walk on my swollen feet so that my kidneys won’t get shut down. Then one told me to take my blindfold off and choose one cable of many different sizes hanging on the wall! So, the next round started. I passed out several times, losing consciousness. After midnight, another interrogator came and asked the torturers, to keep fifty lashes for him instead of his nightly prayers! Torturing a young girl amounted to his nightly prayer. Imagine that!
Being suspended from ceiling or hanging by arms which is called Qappani, prolonged sleep deprivation, listening to the sound of summary execution of other prisoners, were my daily routines.
Finally, after several months, I was brought to a 5-minute court, done! I was not allowed to speak, no lawyer was present, just a cleric judge, and two of my torturers as the prosecutors. I was sentenced to one-year prison but was kept longer. You know why? I was not a repentant!
If they couldn’t break you any more physically, they would take us to sit right outside of the torture chamber, listening to the screams and moaning of our cell mates.
I never forget Mona. The little infant baby, who was dropped into my lap one day while her mother was being dragged to torture chamber. I said, what do you want me to do, I have nothing for the baby, no milk, no diaper. Response: I don’t know, deal with it.
Well…. Mona cried and cried due to hunger until she could cry no more, just moaning. As I cried with her, I remembered oh… I have few cubes of sugar, so I would rub my finger on it and put it in her mouth to keep her alive somehow.
During the years in the ‘80s, the government would publish a list and photos of executed children in Newspapers (Keyhan & Etelaa’at), asking people and parents to come forward to identify and collect their dead children’s bodies. High school, university students, teachers, engineers, military personnel, doctors, professors, artists, athletes, authors and scientists were murdered without a trial. There were eleven-year-old girls, pregnant women and 70-year-old grandmothers who were tortured to death. To this day, torture is an essential tool to demoralize and break the resistance of political prisoners.
The practice of rape against female prisoners has been a systematic form of torture practiced in mullah’s dungeons.
In the 1980s, a large number of young girls were detained in political prisons. Khomeini issued a Fatwa (a decree) for raping of young girls to be executed, to deprive virgin girls from entering into Heaven. So, they were raped by revolutionary guards before their execution. The guards would later go to parents with sweets, congratulating them that their daughter was married, now give bullet money as a dowry.
I remember women as young as 17 years old like Shiva, 75-year-old grandmothers, like mother Fezeh, from Sangsar, a small town in Semnan Province. Both were asked to either convert to Islam or stay in prison.
The world never found out what happened to us!
When I finally got out, I promised myself to be the voice of the voiceless. I’ve made it my life’s mission, to live in strength and courage. Let me be very clear: I am not a victim, I am a thriving survivor!
I am a success story because I live to share it with you. To perhaps one day, be a witness in an international court, bringing justice to the dead and their families, and to the rest of us, the living survivors.
I would like to conclude by commemorating to some of those fallen heroes like, Dr. Hajar Karami, Ashraf Ahmadi, Mahtab Firouzi, and Fardin Fatemeh Modaresi, who always missed her daughter Nazli. Zahra Zolfaghari, who lost her sanity due to tortures and committed suicide after she was released. I would like to remember my dear friend Mahin Badouee, who could not bear the brutal tortures and committed suicide in prison. I will always remember Parvin Goli Abkenari, Soheila Darvish, Soudabeh Seyed Yousefi and all the others…
I shall remember them always as they are my guiding light toward a free Iran!