Widad grew up in Akre, Kurdistan region, Iraq, where the central government controlled every aspect of political, economic, social, cultural and organisational life. She was about 4 years old when she survived the Iraqi government offensive against the Kurds in 1974.
Already in her early and teenage years, she resisted all efforts by members of the Baath Party to win her over to their side. As a result, she was blacklisted for prolonged periods of time.
Committing to Human Rights and Peace: A Personal Choice
By the time she was 16, she left her birth city and attended Salahadin University in Erbil, where she was able to acquire knowledge about human rights and their incorporation into daily life, including education and health care systems. The development of specific mechanisms necessary to protect these rights to create peaceful and human-rights-friendly environments was one of her priorities. She explored the use of excessive force and the nature of violence in general and their psychological and physical impacts on victims and communities.
Her anti-authoritarianism and commitment to a culture of human rights and peace were not without risk, and as time went by a number of safety problems emerged. Without using fake names and changing their address from time to time, she and her family were expected to face chemical gas attacks and/or becoming a proportion of the victims of the Anfal genocide campaign that took place in the late 1980s.
In the summer of 1987, she became secretly involved in documenting the immediate and long-term impacts of torture and other violations of human rights on the victims throughout Iraq. Soon after, she was politically involved in various struggles for human rights, peace, ethnic reconciliation, social justice, and participatory and inclusive governance. Aiming to provide needs assessments for different decision making scenarios, she carried out surveys and interviewed the victims and their families under very difficult circumstances.
Despite the hardships faced, she found a way to complete her education and graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Structural and Civil Engineering in 1990. This was not only an academic achievement that laid the foundation for her statistical and mathematical skills, but also a symbol of personal empowerment and a spiritual journey in her life in the sense that she got used to taking on responsibility and tackling challenges single-handedly.
Relocation to Denmark and Education
After the first Gulf War, as the bloody offensive against the Kurds mired deeper, she fled to Turkey. That was very shortly after she had become disillusioned with the human rights situation and political and social degradation of her birth country. Because of her peace activism and political affiliations, she applied for political asylum in Denmark, where she relocated at the beginning of 1990s.
In Denmark, she learned Danish in record time and dedicated lots of her time volunteering for Amnesty International (1994 – 2007). In the early 90’s, she attended the DTU University and focused her research on a genome-sequencing project that dealt with examining the biological function of newly discovered genes. Even as she worked in the laboratory long past dinnertime, sometimes into the early hours of the morning, a fraction of her time was devoted to protecting and promoting human rights by monitoring, advocating, lobbying, and taking solidarity actions. Towards the end of the 1990, she graduated, earning a master’s degree in genetics and genomics. Soon after, she served as a researcher in human genetics and inherited diseases at the Danish Royal Hospital, the largest hospital in Denmark and a leading university hospital in Northern Europe. She has also earned a PhD in global health and cancer epidemiology and published several medical textbooks and research articles. Moreover, she has received various honour code certificates from renowned international universities, such as Harvard University, and served as a peer-reviewer for leading medical journals.
Dr. Akrawi is one of Internet’s first prominent bloggers specialising in the MENA region. She knew how to harness the power of the internet to address effectivielly vital issues of human rights, peace, freedom of expression, women’s empowerment, international understanding, leadership, governance, and environmental and health issues.
Shortly after her arrival to Denmark, she launched urgent actions, wrote articles for Arabic (e.g., al-nnas, ahewar, al-nnas, droob), Danish and Kurdish (e.g., Kaniya-spi, yek-dem, welate-me, kaniya-spi) print and online (e.g., hekar.net, musanadah.com, thefreesyria.com) newspapers, gave seminars (e.g., Culture House), and took part in panel discussions on topics, such as human rights, women’s rights, international conventions, and the duality of peace and war. While reflecting on the challenges faced on the ground, she remained optimistic about the high level of engagment observed. Consequently, she was able to mobilise civil society activists significantly, which led to increased participation in politics and human rights dialogues. In 2005, she was voted the MENA region’s most prominent blogger (elected among Arabic-speaking bloggers from around the world). She conferred the title of “Queen” blogger for two executive years until she officially resigned. In June 2006, she successfully developed an Arabic blog (controlarmsblog) for Amnesty International, in which she published some of the photos taken in the first regional conference on a possible Arms Trade Treaty and highlighted the importance of having an effective and a legally-binding Treaty. Three months earlier, the Web Team and the International Secretariat of Amnesty International had thanked her for her efforts in support of Amnesty’s campaigns, in particular her “valuable work in judging the short stories competition.”
In 2003, she became a published writer. After researching the concept of victim psychology and the effects of various types of trauma on individuals’ psychological health, she published her first novel, Tara’s Book, written in Danish, in Copenhagen. The book was translated to Norwegian in 2005, published in Oslo, and distributed by the Norwegian Cultural Council to almost all Norwegian libraries. Her eBook, entitled Under Håbets Skyggee (Under the Shadow of Hope), was published in Danish in 2013 at Amazon.com and Lulu.com.
Widad is an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks and deadly Anfal Campaign, which has been officially recognised as “genocide” against the Kurds. In 1988, when the Iraqi government gassed the Kurdish cities and villages, the only way for human rights activists to document the massacres and the impact of these heinous weapons on the environment and human health was to travel to the scene.
In her self-biography and when giving seminars, Widad describes what it was like to be there on the scene. She witnessed how tyrants predetermined destiny, and lives were changed forever. She has referred to this as “the worst time of my life. Even today, all the memories are still in my mind, unflinching and fresh.”
Widad has grown to become one of Scandinavia’s most prominent human rights and peace ambassadors.
Her endeavor blossomed thanks to the strong and loyal support system that believed in her. Along with her commitment to enhance peace, she did her best to ensure that all victims of human rights violations were receiving the kinds of treatment and care that every human deserves. She quickly climbed the ranks, serving as a volunteer and board member with a variety of local, regional and international organisations.
In 2006, Widad met the Manager of Amnesty’s Control Arms Campaign, Mr. Mark Neuman, an outstanding British expert on international security and disarmament, who arranged for her to travel to New York to focus on her lobbying activities at the United Nations. The invitation specifically asked her to join Amnesty’s lobbying delegation in New York to lobby government delegates at the First Committee of UN General Assembly on the proposal for an international Arms Trade Treaty, stating that “this request follows the excellent work you did for us in Cairo in helping to make the Control Arms campaign workshop such a success.” Widad was asked to accept the designation of “Amnesty International First Committee Lobbyist for an Arms Trade Treaty.” In a statement in October 2006, Mr. Neuman stressed that thanks to Widad’s background, knowledge and skills, she “has been able to act as one of our principal lobbyists,” and in this capacity “she has succeeded in obtaining excellent insights and making substantial impact on their understanding of our case and their thinking on the issue.”
This is how her professional expertise was rewarded. Her efforts influenced policy decisions both in individual countries and at the global level. She has been recognised by her colleagues as someone who led by influence. These experiences honed her skills, preparing her to co-found Defend International – an NGO devoted to respond to grave violations of human rights; monitor the implementation of preventive measures that are designed to end impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes; conduct medical research that may either directly or indirectly improve the health standard of communities; and to promote peace and democracy through cultural relations and diplomacy.
Defend International has since its establishment collaborated with a multitude of global NGOs, including the International Action Network on Small Arms, the World Organisation Against Torture, the Observatory, the Cluster Munition Coalition, and has created partner lines, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private initiative led by the United Nations Foundation to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and preserve the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean cooking solutions.
DI Medical Research has developed a range of engaging and interactive research activities that are supportive of the right to health and access to health care on an equal basis for all.
Achievements and Innovative Initiatives
* In October 2014, she was awarded the 2014 International Pfeffer Peace Award by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) for her work as a human rights defender, peace activist, and co-founder of Defend International. Reverend Kristin Stoneking, the Executive Director of FOR, expressed: “The momentum you created in favor of a UN resolution on a strong and an effective Arms Trade Treaty, your commitment to combat armed gender-based violence, and your successful lobbying for the adoption of the new UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict as well as the UN Resolution 2117 (2013) exclusively dedicated to illicit transfer, destabilising accumulation and misuse of small arms and light weapons around the World are outstanding contributions to shifting the current culture of violence, and we are grateful for your work.”
* In August 2013, Dr. Akrawi was ranked by Topyaps among the Top 10 Current Public Figures Who Might Win a Nobel Peace Prize in the future. The list included Gene Sharp, Mordechai Vanunu, Kathy Kelly, Daniel Ellsberg, Malala Yousafzai, Mel Duncan, Alfred de Zayas, Lawrence S. Wittner, and Alyn Ware.
* In December 2013, she was awarded the 2013 ‘Special Prize’ by the National Organisation for Future Generations for being a “passionate advocate of bridging the gap between civilisations and cultures” and making “valuable contributions to humanity through the creation of a culture of coexistence and harmony.”
* She was the first and youngest woman born in the Middle East region to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities related to illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, gender-based violence, chemical and biological disarmament, conventional disarmament and international security.
* Over the years, she has addressed and actively participated in several regional and international meetings and conferences, such as the United Nations Third and Fourth Biennial Meeting of States, the UN Commission on The Status of Women, the General Assembly Interactive Hearings with Non-Governmental organizations, Civil society organizations and the Private sector, and the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.
* On behalf of the Web Team and the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, Dr. Dan McQuillan, Amnesty’s Web Manager, thanked Dr. Akrawi in March 2006 for promoting Amnesty’s campaigns online. “We realise that the most effective way to use the internet for human rights impact is to engage with online discussions, blogging and other interactive techniques. It is also critical for us to create online bridges to Arabic speaking audiences by becoming part of online dialogue and debate. These are challenging goals for Amnesty, but with the cooperation of people like yourself we can greatly boost our chances of success,” Dr. McQuillan stated.
* From 2005 on, she was engaged in different ways to create momentum in favour of a UN resolution on a strong and an effective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to prevent the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons that might be used for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, or terrorism. In June 2006, she co-chaired the first regional conference on ATT held in Cairo at the Pyramisa Hotel. In addition, she was part of a delegation of high-profile NGO-diplomats handpicked by Amnesty International to meet with diplomats and policy-makers at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian Parliament. In the following years, she attended the meetings of the First Committee of the General Assembly on issues of security and disarmament, the ATT Group of Governmental Experts, the Third Committee of the General Assembly on human rights issues, as well as the Biennial Meetings of States on issues of small arms and light weapons. Her lobbying and advocacy are said to have influenced the opinions expressed and the votes of Member States in 2006, 2008, and 2013. Her ultimate goal was reached in April 2013 when UN General Assembly adopted the historic ATT to control the trade in conventional arms worth $70 billion annually, voting it through by 154 votes to three (Syria, Iran and North Korea), with 23 abstentions (e.g., Russia, China and Cuba).
* In 1990, she started advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the MENA region. Two years later, she co-founded a regional Women’s Working Group and developed programs to enhance women’s participation in peace-building and post-conflict governance. In summer of 2007, she was elected as a co-chair of the Women’s Working Group on MENA Region.
* She has committed to combat armed gender-based violence, considering this commitment a crucial investment in healthy minds and bodies to create inclusive, equitable, productive and healthy societies. In February 2013, she called on UN negotiators of the ATT to include a legally-binding provision to prevent armed gender-based violence, stating that “the promotion of such an integrated approach to ending armed gender-based violence has always been at the top priorities of Defend International. We aim to provide new directions to assist in developing policy measures that counter the harmful impacts that illicit trade in small arms and light weapons have on vulnerable populations, especially on women and children.”
* Dr. Akrawi has also helped influence other policies on gender equality and women’s empowerment at the national, regional and international levels, including successfully lobbying for the adoption of a new Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. With her advocacy skills, the support of countries like Afghanistan, Bahrain, Congo, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen was achieved, and 113 countries signed the declaration on 24 September 2013.
* She has additionally taken part in lobbying for the adoption of a resolution exclusively dedicated to illicit transfer, destabilising accumulation and misuse of small arms and light weapons around the world. Consequently, at its 7036th meeting held on 26 September 2013, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2117 (2013) Dedicated to Question of Small Arms and Light Weapons. This ground-breaking resolution has relied on recommendations and language promoted by human rights defenders and peace-advocates like Dr. Akrawi, who for many years has been involved in discussions with government delegations, UN agencies and other stakeholders.
* Dr. Akrawi has initiated numerous peace projects or urgent actions attempting to address (armed) conflicts and reduce racial, religious or ethnic tensions in the MENA region countries, including Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Israel and Palestine.
* She has held numerous leadership positions in national and international organisations, including Executive Board member of Amnesty International Denmark, ambassador of Amnesty International’s “Stop Torture” campaign, and member of Vestby Expert Panel on approaches to socio-cultural constructivism.
* At present, she is an Executive Board member of Women of Europe Award, active member of Cluster Munition Coalition; International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA); and IANSA Women’s Network Working Group, and as a voice of civil society she encourages UN Member States to sign and ratify the international Arms Trade Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions during the meetings that take place at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.