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.  

On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.   

Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).

Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.

Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.

During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.

In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.

I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.

After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.

Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.

They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:

“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”

“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”

Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us. 

I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.

He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.

It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.

At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

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. 

International Day of Peace 2014

In Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he compared the tremendous scientific achievements the world had made by the 1960s to the values we held as a society.

We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

He went on to say, ‘This problem of spiritual and moral lag…expresses itself in three larger problems…Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.’

This year’s International Day of Peace takes place when peace looks impossible to reach. Lately, the news has been discouraging. News of war, famine, violence and disease can be seen daily and for me, and I am sure for others, the news is frightening. Last week, Pope Francis remarked that the world’s many conflicts amount to piecemeal World War Three.

I think Martin Luther King’s words sadly ring true 40 years later.

The recent headlines include some of the most tragic events our history has seen including:

  • The shooting down of flight MH17, with its links to the unrest in Ukraine.
  • The conflict in Syria has amounted to more deaths and refugees than the genocide in Rwanda.
  • The beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS and a few days later, Steven Sotloff, heroes who wanted to bring awareness to injustice.
  • The kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram.
  • Overcrowded boats of migrants capsizing trying to escape poverty.
  • A shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.

Despite the complexity and confusion that surrounds these tragic situations, I think our society can overcome them. Even though we are not the ones in positions of power, we can not forget we have a voice. We live in a time where social media allows us to gain knowledge of global events more quickly and gives us the opportunity to raise our voice. Social media is a tool to understand  these issues affect everyone.

Photo Credit: Liz Fortier
Photo Credit: Liz Fortier

Girls’ Globe utilizes social media to track the progress of the Millennium Development Goals as they relate to women and children. The eight goals aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases, ensure environmental stability, and promote global partnership for development. Despite various barriers to achieving the goals, the one thing that would prevent any of them from occurring is the absence of peace. As Martin Luther King alluded to, racial injustice, poverty, and war, are still the major underlying factors preventing peace today.

Photo Credit: Liz Fortier
Photo Credit: Liz Fortier

The founder of Girls’ Globe, Julia Wiklander recently wrote about how women and children are the most vulnerable in times of conflict. Women are raped at higher rates, experience trauma, and newborns and pregnant women lack critical healthcare and nutrition. Education opportunities are minimized, and infectious diseases can spread more quickly in places without healthcare infrastructures.

The overflowing Syrian refugee camps are becoming places where sexual exploitation of displaced women and girls is common place. Women are objectified, bought and sold or kidnapped, and presented as gifts to leaders of some of these terrorists sects.

Despite how angry or scared we might feel about the horrifying events happening in the news, we must not think that perpetuating violence is the answer.  Let’s ask our leaders to promote policies for social and racial justice and peace. In this way we will more easily achieve the MDGs and protect those most vulnerable in times of war and conflict.

As Martin Luther King went on, he remarked on the nonviolent progress the US had made for civil rights in the years preceding, and the hope he had for a peaceful future.

Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.

We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. -Martin Luther King Jr.

Want to take action?

Visit the UN’s International Day of Peace website to learn what others are doing to promote peace.

September 21st-26th Girls’ Globe will be in New York for the 2014 UN General Assembly. We are partnering with FHI360, Johnson & Johnson, and Women Deliver in support of Every Woman Every Child to amplify the global conversation on the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 agenda. Follow #MDG456Live, raise your voice and join the conversation to advance women’s and children’s health. Sign up for the Daily Delivery to receive live crowd-sourced coverage of these issues directly to your inbox.