As Iraq struggles to deal with ongoing complications from invasions from the United States and ISIS, the country’s women are continuing to face troubling levels of violence — most of it perpetrated by their own spouses and family. As the government largely turns a blind eye to the problem, women activists have quietly constructed a system of 52 secret shelters throughout the country that provide refuge to women fleeing honor killings, sex trafficking, and other forms of violence. Speaking to BBC News as part of the broadcaster’s 100 Women project, Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a charity that runs 10 underground women’s shelters, said that the “the number of women requesting to be sheltered has started rising so fast we are unable to [keep up].” Over the past 15 years, she said, her organization alone had helped almost one thousand victims
“It’s a very dangerous task. The family would kill before letting you get to their daughters,” said Mohammed, noting that the women’s families were most often the ones responsible for their abuse. They had to take serious security measures, she added, to keep families and Iraq’s government from tracking down the women and the secret shelters in which they remain safe and hidden.
“Some of the officials called us brothels,” Mohammed said. “That’s how dangerous they are to such a project of sheltering.”
After taking steps to ensure that they wouldn’t be followed or accidentally give away details that they could compromise the secretive network, BBC reporters were allowed to visit a shelter where eight women were being housed. The woman running the shelter told the BBC that she herself escaped an honor killing seven years ago.
“Yes, of course I get scared,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat here. But that’s why I help them, because they’re going through what I’ve gone through. If my family finds me, they’ll kill me. That could also happen to many of the women here. I’m always worried about police raids. They’ll contact the women’s families, and in many cases they’re the exact people that they’re running away from.”
One of the women helped by the Organization of Women’s Freedom, Salwa, said that she had been suicidal for years before she found asylum in a shelter.
“My mother left me in the first house. I remember I was 6 years old and they would sexually abuse me mercifully. I just lay there and couldn’t say anything,” she recalled. “To be honest, I didn’t think about running away at first. I wanted to kill myself. You reach a point where you can’t take being treated like an animal anymore.”
Now married with two young daughters, Salwa is working to give them the kind of childhood she would have wanted for herself.
“I feel like the old Salwa has been erased,” she said. “Now there’s a new Salwa. I’ve become strong and able to defend myself. I even go to protests. I can’t be silenced anymore.”
According to the U.N. Population fund, nearly half of all women living in Iraq have been exposed to violence by a relative or spouse. But despite the bleak reality, Mohammed says that she and others are still optimistic for the future.
“When I see this home of ours has an army of young daughters who can change Iraq, I am not only hopeful,” she told the BBC. “I am so happy.”
Watch The BBC’s interviews with the women below.