Faced with tough choices and social pressures, some women in the region are paying the ultimate price.
Erbil, Iraq - Jaleh has spent a total of one year inside an unmarked women’s shelter in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Before coming here, the 19-year-old woman with long, dark hair had fallen in love with a man she hoped to marry - but one of her five brothers did not approve.
"So he killed my boyfriend and shot me with a Kalashnikov in our home," Jaleh told Al Jazeera, speaking under a pseudonym. Hearing the shots and her screams, neighbours called the police, and Jaleh was taken to a hospital, where doctors had to amputate her right leg at the knee.
To this day, Jaleh does not know why her brother objected to her boyfriend: "He never told me why ... he still has not."
After spending an initial nine months at the shelter, Jaleh returned home earlier this year in hopes of working things out with her family, "but the problem was still there".
"No one in my family was able to help me. They didn’t want me there - they made it clear. They couldn’t even look at me," said Jaleh, who returned to the women’s shelter three months ago.
Jaleh’s case was just one among 7,436 registered complaints of violence against women in Iraq’s Kurdish region in 2015, according to the General Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women - an increase from the 6,673 complaints recorded in the previous year.
In a region where data is not always collected consistently, comparative statistics are few - but according to the Ministry of Health, more than 3,000 women were killed as a result of domestic violence between 2010 and 2015.
In 2012, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) created the Independent Commission for Human Rights, an autonomous body tasked with studying violence against women in the region and developing strategies to combat it. Although the commission is currently funded by the KRG, it is transitioning towards independent funding.
In its National Strategy to Confront Violence Against Women, a five-year-plan implemented in 2012, the KRG acknowledged that the prevalence of violence against women in the region had become a "huge obstacle" to progress.
Krmanj Othman, a senior legal adviser with the human rights commission, told Al Jazeera that most women’s shelters feel like "five-star prisons" because the women there often feel trapped.
"What is the future of this lady? ... She is always living under threat," Othman said. "Because even legally, if she is protected, living in this situation, she will always be scared."
One of three shelters for battered women in the region, the one in which Jaleh lives, is unmarked, tucked away in the middle of a residential area.
Jaleh said that she does not feel threatened by her family; rather, they have completely rejected her. But although she wants to go to law school and work towards protecting women’s rights, this dream seems impossible right now.
"No one wants me outside this shelter," she said. "Where should I go?"
According to Ramziya Zana, the director of the Gender Studies and Information Organisation, an Erbil-based NGO, most women experience increased psychological stress after they leave the protection of a shelter.
"We don’t accept a woman in this society who makes a complaint against men - they are not accepted back," Zana said, noting such rejection often leads to depression and potentially suicide. In 2015, at least 125 women in six surveyed cities in Iraq’s Kurdish region killed themselves via self-immolation - up from 97 cases in 2014.
Zana cited a correlation between the worsening economic situation in Iraq’s Kurdish region and an increase in divorce rates. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of divorces in Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimania rose from 1,029 to 8,105, court documents show.
"The worsening economy puts extra stresses on marriages, and women tend to pay the price," Zana said.
As with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, Iraq’s Kurdish region has landed in the crosshairs of women’s rights groups - both domestic and international. The region has been criticised for not implementing laws that protect women from female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence, sexual assault, self-immolation and femicide.
Using the United Nations’ metrics for gender inequality - where inequality is scored between zero and 1, with higher numbers indicating more inequality - Iraq’s Kurdish region scores 0.41. The region scores better than the rest of Iraq, which comes in at 0.55, but worse than some of its neighbours, such as Turkey (0.36) and Lebanon (0.38).
Official statistics show that there was an increase in the rates of violence against women, female suicide and femicide in Iraq’s Kurdish region between 2014 and 2015, with the number of domestic violence complaints rising by nearly 800 and cases of suicide by self-immolation increasing by more than two dozen. The rate of reported sexual assaults decreased slightly - by 20 cases - over that timeframe.
In the first seven months of 2016, meanwhile, 52 women in Iraq’s Kurdish region committed suicide, compared with 64 in all of 2015. An additional 62 women did so via self-immolation, compared with 125 in all of 2015. And 145 women were set fire to by someone else, compared with 198 in all of 2015.
Othman said that the real numbers were likely even worse, as the data is not collected in a manner that complies with international standards. "Every place and every person can be collecting the data in a different way," Othman said.
In some cases, attackers take steps to ensure their victims are unidentifiable.
"Sometimes they throw the bodies of the women into rivers or the mountains. At times, their bodies are burned," Zana said.
In 2011, legislators in Iraq’s Kurdish region passed a law against domestic violence in response to the growing problem. A study done that year indicated that 44 percent of married women reported being beaten by their husbands if they "disobeyed his orders". The global estimate for violence against women by their partners, married or unmarried, is 30 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
Implementation of the 2011 law has been criticised as insufficient by rights groups and the UN’s office of the high commissioner for human rights. But Dindar Zebari, deputy minister and head of the KRG’s foreign relations department, said that the increasing number of complaints between 2014 and 2015 indicates that things are improving for women in the region.
"Regarding FGM and domestic violence and things like this - the KRG has never said it does not happen. We admit it happens," said Zebari, noting that the law has made such practices illegal.
"This law has made things better for women in [the Kurdish region]," he said, citing a rise in public awareness that has led to an increase in the number of complaints filed. The rising divorce rate is also a positive sign, he added: "Now women see they have rights and they will not accept this [domestic abuse]."
However, Othman pointed out that unless a woman files a formal complaint, nothing can be done - and he believes there is still a lack of understanding about women’s rights in the region.
"If you don’t have anything on paper," he said, "then it doesn’t exist."
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