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#16 Days: Conflict in Iraq and Syria Plays Out on Women’s Bodies

FRIDAY FILE: As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence (25 November to 10 December) under the theme “let’s challenge militarism and end gender-based violence”, AWID speaks to Lisa Davis, Human Rights Advocacy Director at MADRE, and to Nurcan Baysal, Kurdish activist and writer for the Turkish electronic journalT24, to learn more about the sexual and other violations of women’s and girls’ rights with the insurgency of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).

Over the last six months, there have been horrific reports on the increasing violence in Syria and Iraq with the insurgency of ISIS. On 5 August, Vian Dakhil, an Ezidi[1] member of the Iraqi Parliament, made a plea for assistance to Ezidi people facing extermination with the Siege of Sinjar[2] by ISIS. The ethnic cleansing of religious minorities and other forms of violence occurring in Iraq, perpetrated by both State and non-state actors, were also reported by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2014. In this context of militia rule and impunity, women and girls are particularly affected by human rights violations, including being raped, kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.

Nurcan Baysal and an Ezidi family in Silopi refugee camp, Turkey.

The war continues on women’s bodies

According to Lisa Davis, the impact of this crisis on women in general has been grave. She explains that ISIS fighters are ordering women to stay at home. Girls and women are being kidnapped—a lot of violence has occurred as militants have entered homes—and sold in market places, forced into sexual slavery or held in makeshift prisons. We have also seen an increase in calling for honour killings, linked to the shame that women, who have been held by ISIS, face when returning to their communities.

We know that the issue of rape and sexual slavery is a grave concern for women in Iraq and Syria in terms of the conditions of living under ISIS control. There are also women who have been trafficked, forced into prostitution or exploited when leaving ISIS control because there are gaps in services, which are not provided for all women in the region for example, if they don’t have an ID card.

Hundreds of Ezidi women and children have been captured and sold into sexual slavery since ISIS took control of Sinjar, and in Mosul, hundreds of Christians were warned by ISIS to either convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face violence.

Nurcan Baysal has been travelling to several refugee camps for three months, and has heard stories from the Ezidi and Kobanel people about the ISIS massacres.

“Most of the stories especially in Ezidi camps are about women. Each story is more painful than the next. The situation of women is very bad in conflict areas. Most of the time, the war continues on the body of the women. An Ezidi man from the Diyarbakir Ezidi camp says, when ISIS came to their village, they gathered the women and said, “We are dirty, give us a bath in the hammam[3]”.

The women who refused were killed immediately. Those who accepted had to go with ISIS. In another village, beautiful women were selected and sold to people coming from Saudi Arabia for 130 US dollars. Around 2000 women, from 19 villages, were taken for ISIS members. Thousands of Ezidi women were raped and thousands sold as slaves in Arab bazaars.

Kurdish guerrillas, the People's Protection Units (YPG), reached Sinjar to protect Ezidi and Christian women from ISIS attacks. YPG then opened a corridor and passed them to South Kurdistan, but there are still approximately 5000 Ezidi women missing, according to the European Ezidi Federation. Now, there are Kurdish fighters (both from YPG and pesmerghe[4]) in Sinjar area who are trying to protect the population still living in the area.Thousands of Kurdish women are fighting against ISIS together with men in Kobane to protect their folk, homeland, soil and honour. Everyday at least five to six martyr funerals come to the region, half of them were Kurdish women fighters fighting against ISIS.”

A humanitarian crisis in refugee camps being addressed largely by local municipalities and Kurdish women’s rights organisations

Baysal says, “After ISIS attacks, thousands of Kurdish women with their children came to Turkey. Today there are 180,000 Kobanel people in Turkey, most of them women and children. But only 10,000 find a place in the camps, 170,000 refugees are on the streets, in parks, in villages, trying to survive with the help of Kurdish municipalities and the local people.

Nearly all Ezidi and Christian refugee women are in the camps established by the Kurdish municipalities. In these camps, Democratic and Free Women’s Movement (DÖKH)—a Kurdish women movement—provide a range of support for refugee women, including psychological support. Some women were raped, some injured; a lot of them lost their families in tragic ways. They have witnessed awful atrocities, an Ezidi woman told me that, “They cut the belly of a pregnant woman, took the foetus out, and cut the baby in the middle of the village”. As women activists living in the region, we need support for the camps, of any kind, food, health supplies, tents etc, as well as for social work. Municipalities and NGOs in the region also do not have experience working with refugee populations, so we need the help of the international NGOs who have expertise in this area.

Women’s organising and the need of more international solidarity and action

According to Davis, “when we discuss women human rights and gender justice, we know that there are many factors such as ethnicity, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, as well as sexual orientation that need to be considered. There needs to be activism and collaboration across different sectors of civil society; as well as getting commitment from governments, religious institutions and the international community. We haven’t seen much action, if any, from Governments in the MENA region. There are also only a few NGOs, such as the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) and MADRE that are strongly advocating for women’s rights in this crisis, and allocating time and resources to the cause. MADRE and OWFI are having extensive meetings on this issue in key international spaces, because the international community, including the UN and world leaders, have a vital role in ensuring women’s rights in this region are upheld, as well as providing resources to local women’s organizations, who are providing humanitarian assistance to women survivors. It is important to underscore that local organizations have access to ISIS controlled areas that UN agencies do not; they have a broader access to the people most affected, and often the most cut off. For this reason, at the local level, we [MADRE and OWFI] are advocating on the issue of ID cards, and that the government of Iraq change the Shelter policy. In central Iraq (not including Kurdistan), there is a government policy that local NGOs cannot legally run shelters, but women’s organizations are doing it anyway because there is such a high need. We also know that women’s groups, such as the OWFI, are working to assist Ezidis also providing public education, health care, humanitarian aid. The same is true for local organizations in Syria that are advocating for access for humanitarian aid when those are also cut off because of ISIS.”

Davis believes regional governments, particularly Arab states, and prominent religious leaders should take a strong stand on the protection on women’s rights in the crisis. Women need to be included in discussions to ensure any outcome includes a women’s rights perspective.

“Finally, it is important to consider what will happen after the crisis. We need long-term solutions for women’s access to justice, with the reintegration of civil society for all Iraq. This can be done through supporting local organizations.”

[1] Ezidi are a Kurdish ethno-religious community whose religion is linked to Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions. The term “Ezidi” is used instead of “Yezidi”, which derives from a derogatory label for the Ezidis that implied that they worship Yezid.

[2] Also known as Shingal or Singal, Sinjar is a town in Northwest Iraq, close to the Syrian border.

[3] A hammam is a steam room, similar to Turkish bath, to cleanse oneself.

[4] Armed Kurdish fighters.

West Asia