9 December 2019
On this Human Rights Day, I'd like to shed light on sexual violence—an important issue on which I have been working to raise awareness for several years. Five years ago, my life drastically changed when ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) invaded my hometown of Sinjar, Iraq, with the intention of committing genocide against the Yazidi people. An ethno-religious minority group, Yazidis have long been discriminated against and subjected to horrific violence at the hands of various extremist groups. Women and children have been especially targeted. Many of us who survived the ISIL genocide have been unable to return to Sinjar.
ISIL tore apart my family and entire community. They tried to convert Yazidis to Islam and murdered the men and older women who refused. Younger women and children were kidnapped and subjected to the ISIL sex slave trade. I was held captive by ISIL and abused by militants, but I managed to escape. Once I was able to seek refuge, I knew that I must tell my story and expose ISIL war crimes. I will never forget what they did to me, my family and my community, and I need the world to know, too.
Since I began travelling the world to tell my story, as well as to amplify the voices of other marginalized people, I've had the great fortune of meeting many strong, inspiring individuals. Getting to know them and their stories gives me hope that one day we will be able to live in a world free from sexual violence. I never expected our stories to receive the amount of global attention that they have, but now that I have this platform, I want to use it to seek justice and dignity for Yazidis and other survivors of sexual violence around the world. Moreover, I hope that my audience will also feel inspired to share their narratives and join me on my mission to advocate for justice. I believe that together we can dismantle the hierarchy of voices that has silenced us for far too long.
Gender-based violence not only impacts its victims, but also those close to them. Perpetrators use sexual violence in an attempt to assert dominance and power over entire communities. The consequences are far-reaching and long-term; families and communities experience collective, generational trauma, which can destroy them from within.
Doctors Without Borders recently published a report on the grave mental health crisis among Yazidis. One survey from 2018 found that 100 per cent of Yazidi interviewees in Sinuni, Sinjar, had at least one family member who was struggling with mental illness.1 Yet the mental health infrastructure in Iraq is insufficient and there is a stark lack of mental health professionals who can provide Yazidis with the care that they desperately need. We must not only address the visible physical damage caused by war criminals like ISIL, but also improve access to adequate mental health care for members of communities in crisis. In addition, being unable to return to the Yazidi homeland has been another major stress factor impacting our mental health. This is why the international community must focus on the sustainable rehabilitation of Sinjar.
In order for victims to begin the process of healing and to prevent further abuses, the international community must hold war criminals accountable for sexual violence and human trafficking, thus signaling to the world that it strongly condemns all forms of violence. This means taking perpetrators to open court and publicly trying them for their crimes.
Impunity is complacency, and words without action inflict the same harm and suffering as the perpetrators of mass atrocities and sexual violence. All people are equal and entitled to the same human rights, and we must challenge the notion that certain groups matter more than others.
1 Doctors Without Borders, “Iraq: Yazidi survivors of violence are facing a mental health crisis”, 4 October 2019. Available at https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/news/iraq-yazidi-survivors-violence-are-facing-mental-health-crisis.
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