Inspiring Thursday: Widad Akreyi

Dr. Widad Akreyi works as an international health expert, author, and she also co-founded the organisation Defend International – an NGO devoted to responding to human rights violations.

Not only is she considered the most prominent Danish-Kurdish human rights and peace advocate, Widad Akreyi is also the first Scandinavian citizen to ever receive the International Pfeffer Peace Prize, as well as the “Special Prize” for bridging gaps between cultures. In 2017, Akreyi received the Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Peace and Freedom Award by the Pacem in Terris Coalition for “her life-long commitment to peace and justice.”

Looking back on the restrictive conditions that she was provided growing up in Southern Kurdistan, Dr. Widad Akreyi now realises that her reaction, even as a young girl, was never to accept those terms; “[o]n a personal level, the lack of freedom around me made me grasp how important my freedom of thought was,” and she goes on, saying “[t]o cope with reality, I’d rather spend my time reading books, escaping to (fictional) worlds, freeing myself from the shackles of tyranny. In a way, I created my own world in order to survive.”

Widad Akreyi’s experiences from her upbringing spurred her passion to create a more peaceful world and led her down the career path of peace advocacy. Born in 1969, she grew up Southern Kurdistan, where everything from political to social life was monitored and controlled by the government. She was born in Aqrah, but her family fled to Mosul when she was five to avoid the Iraq government’s offense against the Kurds. As a teenager, she took on the role as campaigner, defending the rights of her own and her classmates who had also become subject to the interference of the government as well as socio-cultural beliefs.

At age 16, she left her home to attend Salahadin University in Erbil (Hewler), which is when she started to learn more about human rights and how important they are in relation to the education and health care sectors. Despite her dedication of time to the cause of peace and freedom for the people, she eventually graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Structural and Civil Engineering. She then fled to Turkey after the first Gulf war, and later applied for political asylum and relocated to Denmark.

Her contribution to the peace and security field is long-standing. In 1987, under difficult and secretive circumstances, she managed to accumulate data on immediate and long-term impacts of torture and violations of human rights in the Kurdish region and all of Iraq. This data was used as a basis for needs assessments in various decision making processes in the following years.

“By working together, we can help prevent future genocides. We are all on one road, and what we do or not do matters. Our world deserves better. It is my hope that we can come together as one to bring about peace, healing and wholeness.”

In 2006, Widad was recruited by the Manager of Amnesty International’s Control Arms Campaign. She was invited to go to New York to lobby at the UN as part of Amnesty’s delegation, and the purpose of this job was to lobby government delegates on the proposal for an international Arms Trade Treaty. She is the first woman of Middle Eastern decent and the youngest female human rights advocate to embark on lobbying within policy making of illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, armed gender-based violence, chemical and biological disarmament, conventional disarmament and international security.

Among other remarkable accomplishments, Akreyi influenced national, regional, and international policies on gender equality and women’s empowerment; she successfully lobbied for the adoption of a ‘Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’, and, by the momentum created from that, 113 countries signed the declaration in September 2013.


By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern