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Displaced by war, driven by peace. A story of sisterhood

Story Gender equity
Iraq -

It all started with a handful of women joining efforts, turning a burnt caravan into a meeting place, and reaching out to others. Today, the Lotus Flower Foundation is a thriving women-led organisation changing the lives of women and girls all over Northern Iraq. Vian Ahmed, a young agent of change herself, tells their story.

In the same area of Iraq’s Northwest, where Cordaid successfully ran a healthcare and mental health programme in the aftermath of ISIL’s occupation and their genocidal onslaught on the Yazidi population, we are now collaborating with several organisations that promote the empowerment of girls and women.

Women Voices First

This collaboration is part of our Women’s Voices First programme. This programme, supported by British Embassy Baghdad, provides flexible, multi-year funding that enables civil society organisations to define their own priorities under the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Many of the activists and aid workers we work with in northern Iraq, are Kurdish and Yazidi women that have experienced forced displacement themselves. They carry out their activities in areas still strongly affected by fragility and insecurity.

One of the organisations participating in the Women’s Voices First programme is The Lotus Flower Foundation. It was born out of the commitment to stand with women and girls who were displaced after ISIL’s invasion in 2014.

At that time, the current regional director of the Lotus Flower, Vian Ahmed, was a young English literature graduate who wanted to respond to the refugee crisis unfolding in front of her eyes, in the city of Duhok. “People from Sinjar were seeking refuge everywhere, in the streets, mosques, in parks, in the surrounding villages, in camps, all in desperate need of support,” she recalls

After working with several agencies inside the IDP camps, Vian meets and befriends Kurdish British national and child genocide survivor Taban Shoresh. Both of them want to step up support for displaced women and girls. Taban had already quit her city job in the UK and spent over a year in Kurdistan, witnessing the effects of yet another genocide, this time not by the regime of Saddam Hussein that had nearly killed her when she was a girl, but by ISIL. Back in the UK, she set up the Lotus Flower Foundation, in 2016. And Vian, after quitting a well-paid job and accepting financial uncertainty, is the first person to join her and starts organising activities on the ground.

‘What can you do? You have nothing!’

To get things started, she goes to the camp she had been working at before. This was long before The Lotus Flower had secured any international funding. “What can you do? You have no money, no office, nothing, a man from the camp management told me. But I knew the community inside the camp, I knew some of the girls and women, and also the camp authorities and some of the other NGOs working there.”

two women standing looking into the camera smiling
Vian Ahmed (left) and Taban Shoresh. © The Lotus Flower Foundation.

After Vian’s plea, the camp manager allows her to have a burnt-down trailer. With a group of volunteers, she rehabilitates it and turns it into their meeting place, and their first office. Et voilà, a women empowerment organisation was born. From scratch.

Grown in muddy waters

Today, The Lotus Flower Foundation is a thriving internationally-supported Kurdish Iraqi women-led NGO. It has three women empowerment centres and two child-friendly spaces, employing over a hundred young professional women, many of whom are or have been living in IDP camps. All of whom empower other displaced women and girls.

Why did they choose the name of an originally Asian flower? Because it’s a strong flower, ‘grown in muddy waters, only to blossom into something beautiful’, as they explain on their website.

Through the power of her passion and with the synergy of women getting together, Vian Ahmed sets things in motion in very challenging circumstances. In Duhok, we had the opportunity to interview her.

What is your mission with the Lotus Flower Foundation?

To support women and girls in overcoming the traumas and depression from war and conflict, and to give them the tools to flourish and become independent.

You started by fixing a burnt trailer inside a camp. How did it go from there?

First, we only worked with volunteers, because there was no money. Our team had different kinds of backgrounds and talents. Some started giving English classes, like myself, some taught others how to read and write, or organised sewing workshops. Some had a psychological background and started mental support activities. And so on.

As Taban started raising funds in the UK, we were able to grow step by step. In 2018, we opened another centre, in another refugee camp. Today, we have five centres, three for women, and two child-friendly spaces.

“The first time I invited displaced Yazidi GBV survivors to come to a centre for psychosocial support and legal aid, they laughed at me. ‘By going there my husband would beat me even more’, they said.”

Today, five years after the defeat of ISIL and the liberation of places like Sinjar, what are the most pressing challenges of women and girls in this part of Iraq?

The strict traditional and religious norms. They restrict our freedom and ability to participate in many spheres of life. Many men still do not allow their daughters and wives to leave the house. Many jobs are out of bounds for women. Most of us can study and graduate, but then for a lot of us, it stops, and we cannot even work.

How is this gender-related repression related to the conflict? And has it improved or is it worsening?

It is improving but for the wrong reasons. The conflict has increased hardship, also economically, to such an extent, that more and more families simply cannot survive without the women going out and generating whatever income they can earn. This has empowered women. It has also created a reality where men increasingly understand they have some rethinking to do. But progress is very slow and does not go very deep, because it is driven by economic need, rather than by a real change in mentality.

Would you still say that, in this case, war and conflict, unintentionally and indirectly, also have a liberating effect on women?

Yes, they do. I also see it in the displaced communities I work with. The women and girls come from isolated rural villages, without schools or hospitals. The world was their village, with all the extremely restrictive norms they grew up with. Now, living in the setting of a big city like Duhok, their lives have changed completely. The Iraqi government wishes these displaced families to return to their places of origin, but a lot of girls and women do not want that. Why go back to a village where your daughter or you yourself cannot go to school or to a hospital when something is wrong? Where there is no electricity or drinking water? Eight years ago, they would still have had the idea of going back. But after ten years this has changed. They won’t go back. And this will not change. Unless governments invest in rural areas and offer villagers the same kind of basic services. And even then, you can change and improve infrastructures, but changing mentalities is something else.

There is another kind of liberating effect. It comes from interaction with the outside world and with new ideas and mindsets. The first time, in 2015, when I invited displaced Yazidi GBV survivors to come to a centre for psychosocial support and legal aid, they laughed at me. ‘By going there my husband would beat me even more’, they said. But after a while, talking to me and other organisations, they started coming. They saw that parts of the outside world cared and that Iraqi and international aid workers were there for them. Not only to provide food and other items but also to talk about rights, protection, about equity. This opens up new horizons. It opens minds.

Does it also create new tensions, for example between displaced families and their places of origin?

This is a reality. Many displaced women have amazingly increased their leadership skills and talents. They have empowered themselves. They took part in training and personal development opportunities in the past decade of international support. Often, the hardware of international aid gets a lot of attention, in the media. The food, the blankets, the water, the rebuilding of houses… But the so-called soft services, less tangible, and less visible, like awareness raising, listening to people’s stories, providing legal support, and psychosocial and mental support, have a long-term effect on people’s lives.

So, the girls and women who were displaced, have often literally moved on, whereas life in the villages they came from stood still. When the Lotus Flower recruits new staff, we have no difficulty finding the right persons among the displaced communities, but we can hardly find them in the villages and towns where these women originally come from, or even in a big city like Duhok. In our business incubation programme, we work with young women that show entrepreneurial skills. Like single mothers who now successfully run shops and other businesses. In displaced communities, the number of good candidates is overwhelming, outside they are much harder to find.

International aid tends to focus on the displaced. But host communities and families that do not want or cannot leave, need to be offered the same opportunities. This is why the Lotus Flower works in and outside camps.

A lot of what you do is about creating the kind of human security that allows traumatised women and girls to move on in their lives. How would you describe this kind of security?

There are many angles to this. From a governance point of view, women affected by war and conflict, especially the most excluded and hardest hit, must be actively involved in the after-war peace processes and the rehabilitation of their communities and their country. This is all about implementing UNSCR Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. All Lotus Flower activities are geared toward this.

Do you see any significant institutional progress when it comes to gender justice and equity, for example with the recent adoption of the Domestic Violence Law and the Yazidi survivor law in 2021?

These laws definitely have an effect, especially when cases are taken to court. It is important for women to know there are laws that protect them. The problem is that a lot of people, including women, think these laws undermine traditional values and norms, allowing women to go against their husbands or other male family members. It is only when they are confronted with abuse or rape themselves, or their daughters, that women find out how important these laws are.

“Topics like sexual abuse, especially within the family, are sensitive to a point that being vocal about them, can be lethal.”

As for the Yazidi Survivor law, Taban in the UK, with a group of lawyers, is currently supporting five ISIL survivors in a case against an Australian ISIL fighter, to get reparation and compensation. The new law is a key element in that case.

From our side, in Duhok City, the Lotus Flower speaks to a lot of Yazidi gender-based violence survivors. They are either a victim of domestic violence or have survived ISIL. Or both. We listen to them, support them, and refer them to other professionals for direct legal aid. Having these laws is hugely important, to work on cases and seek justice, and help survivors overcome fear and claim their rights.

There are these legal reforms. There is international support. What, on the contrary, are the main obstacles you face, blocking gender equity progress?

This is Iraq. Today can be good, tomorrow you’re stuck. I’m talking about getting no access to the women and girls that need your support, about serious insecurity issues.

There are financial obstacles. Not having the kind of sustainable funding that allows you to continue and plan ahead, is an important one.

And then, as I said, there are the strict cultural norms that do not permit us to work and intervene the way we would like, and that stop abuse survivors from reaching out to us. Out of fear, women remain silent. Topics like sexual abuse, especially within the family, are sensitive to a point that being vocal about them, can be lethal.

woman face to camera interviewing woman with back to camera
Peace sister Sahera, doing an interview during a field mission. © The Lotus Flower Foundation

Last, but not least, there are laws that support us in our work, but they are not being thoroughly implemented. It’s not so much a matter of not being treated fairly in court, it’s a matter of not having access to court, not getting there. There still is huge pressure on women and their families, in the form of shame and stigma, to deal with domestic violence, rape, and other GBV cases informally. To keep them within the family or tribal context. Mostly, the outcome of that is negative for survivors and victims. Still, not as bad as being killed. Because this is what happens to women if they step outside the family boundaries and start a court case. And this is true in Yazidi, Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Kurdish communities and families alike, in the whole of Iraq. I can only hope that, with the awareness-raising effects of NGOs and INGOs, but also of social media, this will change.

By the way, most Iraqis do not acknowledge the existence of rape within marriage. It’s not even understood, not even by the victims themselves. Imagine how difficult and sensitive seeking justice then becomes. It shows we still have a long way to go.

What was the Lotus Flower Foundation able to do with Cordaid support and as a participant in the Women Voices First programme?

With Cordaid support, we set up our Peace Sisters initiative, which is all about turning the Women, Peace and Security Resolution into realities in Iraq. Women come together to discuss their most pressing issues insecurity and the lack of peace. And how to solve them. The fact that they all connect as sisters, Yazidi, Shia, Sunni, Kurdish women, displaced women, refugees, returnees, and host communities, makes it even more powerful and empowering. Hundreds of women applied to become part of the Peace Sisters network. Fifty women, including ISIL survivors, were selected and followed a three-month training programme covering topics like mediation skills, conflict resolution, UNSCR Resolution 1325 and its meaning for Iraq, and leadership skills. Apart from being a strong network in its own right, all of these women also set up and pursue initiatives to improve the situation for women and girls in their communities, with our and Cordaid’s technical and financial support.

Can you give some examples?

They consult other women in their communities, discuss what it is they want to address and change and then discuss the community leaders, mostly male authorities. This then results in a plan of action, that is financially supported by us, and Cordaid.

For example, setting up workshops about women’s rights and gender justice among the police and the military. Even addressing gender injustice within the security forces, as many female police officers and soldiers feel belittled and disadvantaged.

“Everything we do, whether it is about climate change, people’s livelihood and income, peacebuilding, or security, we do it from the perspective of women and girls.”

In another community, in Zakho near the Turkish border, they set up an initiative to address drug addiction among youth, especially young girls, which is dramatic in many schools. Five Peace Sisters were trained by a medical specialist we had taken on board on the topic of drug abuse and addiction. They then started their awareness-raising campaigns, involving youth, their parents, their schools, and others.

Where can an eighteen-year-old addicted woman, living in a closed and strictly traditional rural community go for help? Isn’t she dealing with the same kind of stigma and taboo that also clings to sexual abuse?

She does. Usually, she will not reveal her problem, not to her family or anybody else. Selling, buying, and using drugs are all done in secret. Many girls are being offered drugs by men with the idea of controlling, extorting, and abusing them. So there’s a strong link to sexual abuse. The traffickers themselves, not to excuse them, try to find the fastest way out of poverty, by selling drugs. So poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse are interrelated. And Peace Sister initiatives try to address these issues, hand in hand with youth, parents, and authorities in their communities.

A lot of the Cordaid-supported Peace Sisters initiatives for women and girls take place in Zakho in the Kurdistan Region and Ba’ashiqa outside KRI. Why is that?

These are urban settings, often overlooked by humanitarian INGOs many of whom prefer to work in IDP and refugee camps. Yet, both in Zakho and Ba’ashiqa communities are extremely underserved. On top of that, there is the complexity and diversity of these places. It has a demographic mix of people, Yazidis, Shia, Sunni, Turkmen, Kurds, and Christians. But also of returnees and host communities… Zakho, as a border town to Turkey, also deals with the complexities of transnational tensions, migration, and trafficking. All of these aspects deeply affect the lives of women. Making it all the more important to listen to them, empower them, and defend their rights and liberties.

How will you continue working with the Peace Sisters Network after Cordaid’s funding has stopped?

The Peace Sister network and our collaboration with them last longer than a project cycle. The women continue to interact and collaborate. That’s what makes the network sustainable. It is now a stand-alone network that serves as a bridge between The Lotus Flower and the communities. Through them, we know what women face and need in all corners of Iraqi society. We design a lot of our programmes and interventions on what we learn from them.

I heard there’s an offshoot of the Peace Sisters programme, also supported by Cordaid, called Cyber Sisters. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

The issues of online abuse, harassment, and extortion are constantly raised in Peace Sisters gatherings. How can you protect yourself against it as a young woman, where can you go, what can you do? This form of abuse is becoming so big, we had to step up and address it. That’s why we set up Cyber Sisters, a network of fifty young women who are trained and specialised in countering online abuse, in schools and other locations in their communities, also in Zakho.

It seems that gender equity, or rather gender inequity, permeates all spheres of society and therefore asks for an integrated and integral approach to change.

Absolutely. Gender equity has economic, social, political, financial, and many other implications. And also ecological climate-change-related ones. To put it in a nutshell: All over the globe, also in Iraq, women eat least and last. Heat, water scarcity, and drought are increasing a lot in Iraq, causing more food insecurity. Who are the first to feel this? To eat and drink even less? Women and girls. On top of hunger, climate crises, like any crisis, cause insecurity and tensions, of which women also bear the brunt.

“Without Cordaid, Cyber Sisters would still be a file somewhere on my laptop. Now, it is alive.”

Gender is related to everything. The big issue is: when people are dealing with immediate life-threatening situations, like struggling to feed their children, domestic violence, extreme heat, or trying to stay alive when there’s armed conflict, raising gender awareness is very difficult. To address urgent cases of gender inequity, we need to first overcome fear, stigma, and the barriers and limitations that come with crises. For that, you need trust, commitment, and time. Trust we create, commitment we show, and time we make.

If gender equity is related to everything, aren’t you drowning in your ambitions?

No, because everything we do, whether it is about climate change, people’s livelihood and income, peacebuilding, or security, we do it from the perspective of women and girls. That’s our compass, and our road map is clear.

You work with several international partners and donor agencies. Is working with Cordaid in any way different from the others?

Some donors provide funding and after that, apart from reporting obligations, there is no further collaboration, only obligations. With Cordaid it is different. We sit down together a lot. We discuss the financing, reporting, and monitoring procedures, and we learn a lot from that. This makes us a stronger organisation. And it reduces the amount of time we lose on administration.

Some INGOs have a huge number of admin obligations, which take a lot of time and space, and hamper our efforts to grow as an organisation. This is strange, considering the importance the international community increasingly attaches to localisation. If you want local humanitarian actors to take the lead, you should also allow them to increase their organisational capacities and skills.

Cordaid’s funding flexibility and sustainability were also very helpful. In the context of Iraq, with entrenched crises, change takes time. But often, donors offer funding for one fixed project, covering a year or even less, and then disappear. Cordaid supports us for several years and gave us a new funding opportunity for Cyber Sisters, after the Peace Sisters initiative. Without Cordaid, Cyber Sisters would still be a file somewhere on my laptop. Now, it is alive.

Thanks for telling this story, Vian, of how you went from a burnt-down caravan to a sisterhood of activists in truly challenging settings!

Interview by Frank van Lierde / Cordaid