The mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan are edged with a tangerine glow as our minibus drives past them. We set off earlier from Erbil, the region’s capital, and are driving to Shaqlawa, a historic city about 50 minutes away, to hike up the nearby Safeen mountain. Inside the minibus, a group of teenage girls are playing their favourite songs.
The teenagers live with their families in one of Erbil’s two main camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), Baharka and Harsham, having fled Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and surrounding towns such as Tal Afar and Sinjar, when the area was captured by ISISsis in 2014. The hike has been organised by Free to Run, an NGO that supports and empowers women and girls in regions of conflict through sport, offering them life-skills training, and creating safe spaces for them to develop confidence and friends, and to reclaim public space in a country where women’s rights are lacking.
War magnifies existing inequalities and makes women and girls, in particular, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The girls at Free to Run have lived through two: the Iraq War (2003-2011), and the war with ISISsis (2014-2017). They’ve not only suffered the trauma of having to flee their homes. M, many have lost loved ones and missed out on education. Now they are stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Free to Run was established in 20184 and the executive director is Taylor Smith, an American human-rights advocate. The programme has enrolled 30 girls from Baharka and Harsham this year alone. Smith told me that due to their age, backgrounds, and socioeconomic status as IDPs, the girls “struggle more with access to public life, the ability to play sports, and autonomy over their own bodies”. In their home towns, many of the programme’s participants were only allowed to play sport until they reached…