When Nadia Murad Stood Before Trump

When the best of humanity stands before the worst of humanity, the rest of us have an opportunity to learn. 

Nadia Murad belongs to the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority. When she was 19 years old, the Islamic State attacked her village in Kojo, Iraq and killed 600 Yazidi men, including members of her family. Nadia, along with many other young women and girls, was abducted and trafficked.

After three months enduring beatings and rape, she escaped and made her way to a refugee camp. She told this harrowing story in her book, The Last Girl, and now works to help survivors of human trafficking and the Yazidi genocide.

At the other end of the fight for the rights of women and girls, we have Donald Trump. So far, sixteen women have accused him of sexual assault and two women, including his ex-wife, have accused him of rape. Teenage girls said that he walked into a dressing room while they were changing.

While these are accusations and not convictions, Trump has boasted about sexually assaulting women and has called women pigs and dogs. He has made jovial remarks about Epstein, the billionaire who was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting and trafficking teenagers.

“He likes beautiful women as much as I do,” Trump noted, “and many of them are on the younger side.” With these words I believe he convicts himself of the crimes he otherwise denies.

On Saturday, Nadia Murad stood before this mighty and devious man to speak about the Yazidi genocide. Either because he did not pay attention to her testimony or because he is unable to respect a woman, the president asked Murad where her family members were right after she’d told him they had been killed. Despite this hurtful insult, she pressed on, using words like “dignity” to a man who believes that the best way to treat women is like shit.” 

At first, I could not understand why Nadia was there. Why didn’t she refuse a meeting to protest his words, his deeds, and his policies impacting women and girls? But watching the video of their encounter, I realized that meeting with the president was the most powerful form of protest because she wasn’t there for him.

Nadia stood before Trump in solidarity with the women and girls she represents.

Knowing that he has been accused of some of the same crimes committed against her while she was living in slavery, she still stood before him as a tower of strength. Trump avoided looking in her eyes. He barely listened to her story. But there she was, insisting that he acknowledge her words, her story, her humanity; insisting that he come face to face with a survivor of the crimes he, at the very least, jokes about.   

Toward the end of their encounter, Trump asked her why she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nadia replied, “I made it clear to everyone that ISIS raped thousands of Yazidi women. This was the first time a woman from Iraq got out and spoke about what happened.

Trump’s discomfort and resentment were palpable through my computer monitor. So were Nadia’s courage and defiance.    

If we are to honor our commitment to fighting for the rights, health and dignity of women and girls, we must stand for them in the most difficult places and situations. For me, this has been conflict zones and resource-poor settings. For Nadia, this has been the White House.  

What I learned from Nadia is that our commitment to human rights must not shy away from the powerful, the ambivalent, the offensive. These are the trenches we need to sit in; these are the battles that we must choose.

It is the most hardened hearts and minds – not the hearts and minds of our allies – that we must change if we are to create a more just and inclusive world.

And even if we cannot change their hearts and minds, we can go on record for standing tall in the face of injustice. Where one of us stands, we all stand together.  

Noble Peace Prize Awarded to Nadia Murad & Denis Mukwege

In the same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault case, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of their efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

To recognise their work is to recognise the fight against sexual violence everywhere.

Sexual violence in warfare is not random – it is a tactic, and the reality of that is terrifying. Countless communities have been destroyed across the world and the perpetrators often walk free. But Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege are examples of those who cannot and will not stay silent on this issue.

Nadia Murad grew up in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq, which was attacked and occupied by Isis in 2014. The people of the region – the Yazidi – have been very heavily persecuted.

Nadia’s commitment and determination to spreading awareness of sexual violence in warfare comes from her own incredibly harrowing experience.

She was captured by Isis and kept as a sex slave. However, she managed to escape, and despite everything she is determined to tell her story. Even though it means she has to relive the trauma of her experience, she continues to show her face to the world:

“Whereas the majority of women who escaped refused to be named, Ms. Murad insisted that she be identified and photographed, and her advocacy helped to persuade the United States State Department to recognize the genocide of her people at the hands of the terrorist group,” reported the New York Times

By doing this, she is showing that she has not only survived, but is now a voice and champion for many women who have suffered like her. Yazidi people deserve a voice, women deserve a voice and Nadia Murad is yelling out to make her voice heard. Nadia is the second youngest recipient of the award – Malala Yousafzai was only 17 when she received it in 2014.

In her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, Murad writes: I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Dr Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist specialising in treating women who have been victims of rape in Democratic Republic of Congo – a country which has endured decades of violence and conflict. In 2012, during a speech at the UN, Dr Mukwege criticised the government of DR Congo for not doing enough to stop what he described as “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.”

Only a month later, he was targeted by gunmen in his home, and subsequently fled to Europe. It was only after a group of Congolese women raised funds to pay for his return trip home that Dr Mukwege retuned to DR Congo.

“After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence….My life has had to change, since returning. I now live at the hospital and I take a number of security precautions, so I have lost some of my freedom,” he told the BBC 2013.

According to Dr Mukwege, sexual violence in war and armed conflict is “not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it…It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

To end sexual violence we need more men like Dr Mukwege – his skill and care in what he does has changed the lives of so many.

It is clear that once he saw the horrors and atrocities being committed he could not forget them. But we need more men in his position, and higher, who want to stop this. You should not have to see the trauma first hand to know that sexual violence as a tool of war has to be stopped.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege have achieved so much already, and having their amazing work and bravery acknowledged is a significant step forward. 

The Women of ISIS

One of the most frequently mentioned names in the news today is ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has seized international attention through acts of unusual barbarity, often filmed and distributed as terrorist propaganda. ISIS is not merely an extremist minority, but a powerful network of organized militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.

​ISIS’s culture of fear and control is not only aimed at the West, but at the citizens of the areas they have claimed. Women in particular have become targets under ISIS’s strict edicts, with their expectations and roles strictly defined by extremist ideology.

A manifesto published by the group, written with the aim of outlining the role of women, gives a glimpse into life under ISIS rule. Though it deviates somewhat from a radical portrayal of Islamic laws – women are allowed a limited amount of education, are allowed unescorted out of the house under specific conditions, and are provided for in the case of widowhood – it is nonetheless an extremely misogynistic and repressive doctrine.

Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.

“The central thesis of this statement,” states the manifest, “is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.”

Subsequently, it outlines how best women can carry out this duty. Girls are to be educated to the extent that they can adequately raise their children and instruct their families, with education stopping at age 15. Girls are also considered ready for marriage at a mere nine years old.

The UN published a report on the acts of violence carried out on women. Lashings for deviating from established rules, executions for adultery, and the well-documented capture and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi women are among ISIS’s growing lists of human rights violations. Disturbingly, the punishments meted out, and those in charge of brothels are often women themselves.

The al-Khansaa Brigade is the group’s moral police and consists entirely of women. While this seems to stand in contrast to ISIS’s assertion that women should first and foremost be wives and mothers, women are, even in the manifesto, permitted to fight for Islam.

An expert on Islamic militancy, Thomas Hegghammer, told The Atlantic, “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one.” Indeed, ISIS actively works to recruit women. Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.  Little is understood about what is drawing women to the besieged region, but ISIS’s campaign is proving disturbingly effective.

As bizarre as it is perverse, ISIS’s relationship with women is complex, but wholly exploitative.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

First Responders

Women’s Organizations Fighting Against Gender-Based Violence in Iraq

Photo Credit: IFRC
Photo Credit: IFRC

Iraq is opening a new chapter of violence and instability with women and girls pitched in the middle of this defining battle for its future. In the Islamic State’s (ISIL) extremist ideology they represent symbolic chattel to fulfill ISIL’s practices of sexual slavery and forced marriages to IS militants. The international community must coordinate their efforts with local women’s organizations to more proactively put the needs, protection and rights of women and girls in Iraq on their radar for immediate action.

Last month, the Obama administration authorized strategic airstrikes against ISIL. However, this limited response has not adequately recognized the violence inflicted against Iraq’s Yazidi minority group. Iraqi Kurdish MP of Yazidi faith, Vain Dakhil, has given an emotional appeal for the rescue of Yazidis by the international community after witnesses reported around 500 women and children were buried alive in mass graves. Yet military intervention, sporadic and uncommitted, has provided only limited assistance and Obama’s latest statement delivered fleeting reference to the devastating violence perpetrated against women by ISIL.

There has been a constant stream of women and children fleeing the ISIL advance, with many seeking refuge at Mount Sinjar. Many are pregnant or young mothers who are in need of urgent medial care and reproductive assistance. Fleeing for their lives, they have been left weeks without food and water. UNICEF has reported that at least 56 children have already died as a “direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration.”

Long before this, ISIL has been kidnapping women and girls for their own sexual gratitude and to enforce a religiously- homogenous society, stepping closer to a Caliphate state. Iraq’s Human Rights Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, has confirmed that ISIL has captured at least 300 Yazidi women and taken them hostage inside a police station in Sinjar. There are now known to be three further sites, a school, cinema and sports center, were the women have been held captive. On their capture they are separated according to age, with the younger and prettier women and girls being singled out as brides for ISIL fighters if they convert to Islam. Those who resist are beaten or killed. The marriages are but fig leaves to legitimize wide-spread rape of women and girls. Under ISIL mentality, once they have served their purpose, they are passed on to other militants.

Photo Credit: Aljazeera
Photo Credit: Aljazeera

It’s now estimated that at least 1,500 women  have been captured by ISIL since the fall of Sinjar and more than 3,000 are missing across Iraq. The exact number is unclear, but the Sinjar Crisis Group, an organization founded by Yazidi activists in Washington, has compiled a list of 1,074 women reported by their relatives captured by ISIL with hundreds more added each week. Many are feared to have been trafficked into Syria as sex slaves.

Not relying on government and international action, local women’s organizations are mounting a campaign to protect vulnerable groups. MADRE and their sister group the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) are continuing to mobilize an emergency response by establishing women’s shelters and escape routes within ISIS territory and providing psychological care to women who have fled their homes or escaped sexual slavery.  In addition, they are delivering essential gender focused emergency humanitarian aid in Baghdad, Karbala, Samarra and Hawijah. Both the organisations and their allies are advocating for a human rights response to the crisis and protection to human rights activists.

Now is the time to vigorously enforce pledges made during the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Local women’s organizations monitoring the situation on the ground need more support and assistance from the international community. The conflict has not only shone a light against the persecution of women, it has provided greater understanding of the essential work civil society is playing in safeguarding women and protecting their human rights. Without them, women would be left open to the untold horror of ISIL. The situation unfolding in Iraq demonstrates how women continue to be pawns in a war committed and brokered by men. The international community must recognize and act upon the need for gender-based humanitarian assistance programs for women and girls to reflect the gendered nature of the conflict.

The Harsh Reality for Women and Girls in Syria

If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,

I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”

The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.

??????)?While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.

To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.

An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:

Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”

Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.

The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.

All images courtesy of Flickr’s Syria Freedom Creative Commons.