by Diana Nammi, Director of IKWRO

Yesterday 100 people joined IKWRO to mark our tenth birthday party.  It was a wonderful feeling to celebrate with so many of the people who’ve journeyed alongside us over the last ten years.  When IKWRO began a decade ago we were a tiny project with no funds, no staff and not even an office.  Yet from the beginning IKWRO was always rich because of the support of these people.

Over this last decade our supporters have enabled IKWRO to assist over 6000 women and girls affected by honour based violence, forced marriage, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation.  They have helped us to grow into a respected national charity which provides advice and training to statutory agencies.  They have supported us as we have campaigned to put issues such as ‘honour’ killing onto the political agenda, and to demand stronger laws and policies to protect women from our communities.  As I said yesterday, I want to thank all of them from the bottom of my heart.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, IKWRO has produced a book which tells the story of our first ten years.  It’s the story of the dedication of our staff, volunteers and management committee members; of the incredible support we have received from our friends and funders; of the challenges we have faced; and most importantly, of the women and girls who have put their trust in us and have changed their own lives for the better.

Of course it’s also the story of my journey as the founder of IKWRO.  I grew up in Kurdistan, Iran.  There, I knew women whose lives involved suffering, oppression and slavery – and sometimes nothing else.   I fought for the rights of women in Iran, and I always believed that in European countries, women’s rights would be respected and you would never hear of violence against women. But when I came to the UK as a refugee in 1996, I quickly learned that the reality was very different.  Not only was violence against women a major issue, but when it happened to women from minority communities, it was often justified in the name of culture, and the authorities would be afraid to intervene for fear of offending cultural sensitivities.  It made me very angry, and I kept thinking about setting up an organisation to help women from my community and to campaign against this cultural relativism.

I began to do research and went to meet with women’s organisations, but they told me different things and it seemed like it would be very difficult, so I thought perhaps I should go and study instead.  Then I went to the Refugee Women Association, and they really encouraged me.  They provided a sample constitution and gave me advice on having a management committee, a bank account and signatories. So I began to contact people about joining the committee and soon we had the first one.  After a few months of working from home, I was given a desk for half a day a week at the Peel centre, in an office which housed organisations working with Iranian and Iraqi refugees.

Just after I had settled in, in October 2002, I received the terrible news that a Kurdish girl named Heshu Yunes had been murdered in Acton, West London.  Heshu was only 17 years old when her father stabbed her 17 times because she had a boyfriend.  Before her death, Heshu had sought help from a teacher and from a women’s organisation, and family and friends had also known that she was at risk, but no one had helped her.  I felt that Heshu must not be forgotten, and I launched the Remember Heshu campaign to make her case a historical one that would raise awareness of honour killing and of how the police and other organisations could help those at risk. It was the first time that anyone had really spoken out against honour killing in the UK and it helped to break taboos. People began to contact IKWRO about women and girls who were at risk, and in 2003 we had our first client, a very brave young woman whose story is included in our tenth anniversary book.

We also received our first grant of £450 from Islington New Deal for communities.  Our client numbers increased and in 2004 we helped 80 women.  We were still based in a shared office at the Peel Centre and it was not safe for women to meet us there.  We desperately needed our own office.  That was where The Cripplegate Foundation stepped in.  They kindly offered to pay for IKWRO to have its own office in Islington and we moved into the St Luke’s Centre on Central Street.  It was a wonderful point in our history and we are still incredibly grateful to them.

2007 marked another vital step forward for IKWRO.  In May the Tudor Trust agreed to fund IKWRO’s first paid staff member – a full time Advice Coordinator.  In taking this risk they not only brought huge change to the organisation, but also encouraged other donors to trust us.  In November the City Parochial Foundation agreed to fund a Director, so we had two full time staff members and stable funding for core costs, and were able to think more strategically about our future.

Our services were growing all the time and our client numbers increased to 923 women that year.  In 2008 and 2009 we received funding from the Henry Smith Charity, the Forced Marriage Unit, London Councils and the Lloyds TSB Foundation, which helped us to help more women and to build networks with statutory agencies.  We frequently provided advice to professionals to help them deal with cases, and we could see a need for training.  So we began to look for funds and in July 2010 Comic Relief awarded us a grant to run a training programme for professionals and for women.  Not long afterwards, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation also agreed to fund a Campaigns Officer at IKWRO.  Campaigning had always been an important part of our work, and our Justice for Banaz campaign had already helped to bring the murderers of ‘honour’ killing victim Banaz Mahmod to Justice, but having a full time post enabled us to push for more changes.  Since then we’ve seen the launch of a concession to provide support to women with no recourse to public funds; the Prime Minister has announced plans to make forced marriage a criminal offence and we’ve helped pushed issues such as ‘honour’ based violence, FGM and human rights violations committed by Sharia Councils up the political agenda.  Last year we also hosted our first True Honour Awards, a ceremony to recognise those who have taken a stand against honour based violence in their personal or professional lives, and we had the world-renowned Dr Nawal El Saadawi as a speaker at our conference.  With funding from the EC, the Big Lottery Fund and the Home Office we have also doubled our staff capacity.

I only hope the next ten years will bring as much success.  This last decade has been really special for me and I want to say an enormous thank you to everyone who was part of it.  To our dedicated and amazing team of staff and volunteers, to our Management Committee, to our funders and donors and all others who have supported us.  To the journalists who feature us in their articles and documentaries; to the artists, film makers, photographers and designers who have lent their creative skills to our organisation; to the lawyers who provide pro bono advice and to the academics who shed new light on the issues we work on.

Thank you everyone who has been part of IKWRO over the last ten years – in the biggest or smallest of ways.  You have made a unique contribution to something special.  Thank you most importantly to the thousands of women and girls we have worked with. It is your bravery that has kept us going and it has been an honour for us to work with you.

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