For Yazidi women, home is a long time coming
Yazidi women raped by Islamic State fighters have been left in the lurch once again, this time by their own community. The Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council has declared that children conceived by rape and born to survivors will not be permitted to join the northern Iraqi community.
The sect has long regarded any woman marrying outside the group as giving up their Yazidi status, and their children are seen to inherit the religious sect and nationality of their biological father. Those born of rape at the hands of Sunni Muslim ISIS fighters, then, do not qualify for Yazidi status.
In recent years, however, this stance has been challenged by a number of activists in the wake of horrific violence throughout Iraq, which saw ISIS wage a bloody campaign to annihilate the minority community.
In 2014, ISIS fighters swarmed through Iraq’s Sinjar region, massacring Yazidi men and capturing thousands of women who were then channelled through a darkly sophisticated network of sexual slavery. These women were forced to bear children by their captors in a bid to build up the now-defunct ISIS “caliphate”. Some 3,000 Yazidis remain missing to this day.
In 2015, Yazidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh called for the women to return and be welcomed home. The momentum seemed promising, with the head of the Supreme Faith Council, Hazem Tahsin, publishing a landmark order “accepting all survivors [of ISIS crimes] and considering what they went through to have been against their will”. Yazidi activists hailed the order as “historic”, reading the decision as extending the welcome to children born of rape so that they may live among their Yazidi relatives.
The clarification that the earlier edict “absolutely did not mean the children who were born as a result of rape” has been, then, shattering for many.
Yazidi survivor, activist and Nobel laureate Nadia Murad has described the fate of children born of ISIS rape as an “international and humanitarian” matter, drawing specific attention to the plight of their mothers. “I was in contact with many women,” she says, “they told me they have been rescued [from ISIS] but are living in camps, mountains, and [foreign] countries, afraid to return as they have been told that their children will not be accepted.”
Following her ordeal at the hands of ISIS combatants, Murad has waged a campaign against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflicts. Her fight, then, is no longer limited to the cause of Yazidi women; hers is a global crusade with a timeline that spans generations. As such, Murad now lends her support to a myriad of non-Yazidi victims of wartime violence, recently attending an event in London in support of women born half a world away.
Over the course of the Vietnam War, a generation of Vietnamese women were raped and impregnated by foreign forces. Those who were raped by South Korean forces gave birth to the Lai Dai Han, some 30,000 mixed-ethnicity children who have since been forced to eke out a living on the margins of Vietnamese society. Now, the Vietnam and Korean Bar Associations are working in tandem to secure reparations for victims of the war, despite the South Korean government’s refusal to acknowledge allegations of rape.
It is recognition and acknowledgement which appears to pave the road to healing for victims. “I lost everything after I was raped. I was imprisoned, I lost my home and my children lost their future,” says Vietnamese survivor Tran Thi Ngai, “Any apology will probably come when I am dead. But I will accept it, even in the afterlife.”
Even so, post-conflict reconstruction typically overlooks emotional wounds as these. In Rwanda, following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people, as many as 500,000 women were raped in just 100 days. Twenty-five years on, the violence appears to have etched itself into the cultural fabric of Rwanda: a 2018 national survey found 35 percent of survivors aged between 25 and 65 years reported symptoms linked to mental health issues.
“After the genocide, attention was focused on basic needs such as providing survivors with food, water and housing as they had lost everything,” says Sam Munderere from the Survivors Fund (SURF), “no one paid attention to the trauma.”
The trauma Munderere refers to is almost impossible to fathom, with the testimonies of survivors as powerful today as they were then. “I want you to know that the horrors people inflicted during the genocide are more than any human being can endure,” says one survivor of the Rwandan conflict, Marie, “For a long time after, I despised myself for what had happened to me. I hated everything that surrounded me, because it reminded me of what I had lost.” As with their sisters in Iraq and Vietnam, recognition for the women of Rwanda forms the backbone of ongoing reconciliation efforts.
Next month, the UN will commemorate the third annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Amid the fanfare and tidy panel discussions, the daily reality of those who bear the hidden scars of their attacks should not be forgotten. Survivors, and their children, deserve to be acknowledged; true healing is impossible without it.