In many societies, maintaining family and personal honor is integral to upholding cultural norms.  The burden of upholding such honor codes weighs more heavily on women and girls.  In countries such as Iraq, programs designed to combat human trafficking must address severe cultural stigmas about honor in conjunction with protection and prosecution efforts.

Female victims of sex trafficking are often detained and charged with prostitution. They generally spend six months incarcerated before their cases are heard. Photo Credit: Kamaran Najm/ Metrography

Vian* was 14-years old when her neighbor Ahmed, an 18-year old police officer, persuaded her to have a relationship with him by promising to marry her.  Their relationship only lasted a short period before Ahmed ended things, threatening Vian that he would kill her if she told anyone about them.  When Vian’s father became suspicious, he beat her and demanded to know if she was in a relationship.  Fearing for her safety, because the relationship, if discovered, would damage her family’s honor, Vian asked for Ahmed’s help in running away.   Ahmed tried to take Vian to Iran, but she escaped by taxi to another city to look for her friend’s house.  The taxi driver drove her to a brothel where Vian was forced into prostitution.  Several months later the police arrested and detained her and charged her with engaging in prostitution. Once in jail, Vian learned she was pregnant.

Iraqi women and girls are expected to uphold the honor of the family and tribe by adhering to rigid sexual and social norms.  Though not an exhaustive list of reasons, common breaches of these norms include perceived or real actions such as premarital sex, adultery, divorce or exercising freedom of choice in selecting a marriage partner.  Honor related violence is widely viewed by Iraqi society and the law as justified when it’s in response to what is deemed immoral behavior.  Retribution takes the form of ‘honor’ killings, forced marriage – including to rapists, – and severe restrictions on the mobility of women and girls.

Women and girls who flee honor related violence face an extremely high risk of being trafficked into prostitution.  In Iraq, a communal society where family support is integral to survival, a female who is alone, without family protection, cannot survive independently since she cannot safely live or work.

Because the Iraqi Penal Code does not include provisions against trafficking, trained lawyers can defend victims in court by arguing that their clients are not guilty since they were forced to commit crimes.  Coercion to commit a crime is a defense to criminal activity under the Iraqi Penal Code.  Many cases face bleak prospects in court where often the only evidence of coercion is the victim’s testimony, and judges and prosecutors are biased against victims. In one case, the judge called a 14-year old Kurdish victim a “whore” and sentenced her to six months in jail.  More than one year later the girl remains incarcerated to protect her from an honor killing since does not have a safe place to stay long-term.

Fortunately, Vian’s lawyer succeeded in convincing the judge that she was a victim of trafficking and criminal charges were dropped. Her lawyer successfully petitioned the court to have Ahmed arrested and charged with rape. Although Vian’s parents were deeply shamed and initially did not want her to return home, after one year of mediation, Vian’s lawyer reconciled her with her parents.  This was a very difficult choice.  In choosing their daughter over societal pressures, the family faced significant threats and eventually opted to relocate in order to live in peace with their daughter and grandchild.

* The names of the individuals have been changed to protect their identity.

Sherizaan Minwalla is the Director of Legal and Social Services at the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting women and girls fleeing violence.  Prior to joining Tahirih she worked for Heartland Alliance as an immigration attorney, and as their Iraqi Country Director.  She lived in northern Iraq for four years where she ran a number of human rights programs including anti-trafficking protection programs.