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Sister's Forced Marriage Started Iraqi Woman On Activist Path


And now let's meet someone who has dedicated her life to promoting women's rights in a troubled part of the world. She will be honored tonight at the Kennedy Center here in Washington by the group Vital Voices. She's an Iraqi woman. Her fight began at home, as NPR's Michele Kelemen found out.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Khanim Latif was just about 12 years old when her father forced her 14-year-old sister into marriage. That was a moment that changed her life.

KHANIM LATIF: And when she left the school and get married, I upset - really upset - and give me a strong pain. I have to change something in my house and inside my family. And I don't let myself and other sister, which we have, to be like her.

KELEMEN: She started reading books about women's rights and became an activist not just inside her family but in her community. At age 45, she now runs a nonprofit called ASUDA, which has a shelter and a hotline for women in need.

LATIF: I'm fighting everyone in tradition, religion, conservative groups set up in the first shelter, independent shelter, which is very taboo in this time.

KELEMEN: Khanim Latif is from northern Iraq, a mainly Kurdish area that's often viewed as a fairly moderate part of the country. But she says she's faced a lot of pressure over the years from religious and community leaders as she protects women and girls from honor killings and helps victims of domestic abuse.

LATIF: To be the activist - to be the activist not belong the rich family, not belong the political party, not belong the famous family, it's very difficult. I built myself by myself.

KELEMEN: Her group is now trying to cope with a massive influx of people fleeing ISIS. They are providing psychological care to women and girls who were held captive by the group. The U.S. has been supporting Kurdish fighters who are battling ISIS, and the U.S. is supporting groups like hers, too.

LATIF: Fighting terrorism group like ISIS is not just about fighting this group. It's about how you'll build your society. And we could not do alone. We need the support from the State Department, from the United States.

KELEMEN: Her award from Vital Voices should help her fundraising efforts here in the U.S. It's also bringing her closer to her sister, the one who was forced into child marriage. She says her sister is more traditional and never liked her activism but did offer her congratulations on her award.

LATIF: Yesterday she calling me and she said, I am proud of you. This make me very prideful.

KELEMEN: Her sister is still married to the same man and has seven children. Khanim Latif says she married late in life and now has a 2-year-old daughter. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.