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16. May 2019 - News

Northern Iraq: Mothers and their children conceived during rape by IS fighters

"Some women just took their children and disappeared, to prevent them being taken away by the authorities," reports Monika Hauser after her trip to northern Iraq. On the occasion of a two-day peace conference in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was co-funded by medica mondiale, she joined several colleagues from Cologne for a short trip around the region. The women's rights activists present at the conference discussed many issues, but one particular topic was the fragile situation of Yazidi women and their children who were conceived during rape. They are met with rejection and exclusion in their homeland when they return from IS captivity. The organisers of the international conference included our Kurdish partner organisation EMMA.

When five years ago the so-called Islamic State occupied a large part of Iraq, including second largest city Mosul, thousands of women and girls were kidnapped by its fighters. The largest group among them was an estimated 6000 Yazidi women, and there were also many from the Turkmen and Shia populations. They suffered severe traumatisation due to sexual enslavement, rape and other torture by the IS terrorists, which sometimes went on for years. Some were able to escape or were freed by the rebels.

Return from sexualised slavery – Met with contempt and violence

After managing to escape from IS slavery in spite of all the risks and dangers this entailed, women and girls were often then treated as impure by their families, thrown out and left to fend for themselves. Quite often (sexualised) violence within their own family is part of their return. For some women, the despair becomes so great it leaves no other option than suicide to bring an end to the unbearable physical and psychological suffering caused by the exclusion and disdain from their community: a further experience of trauma. Many women are struggling on their own in dilapidated houses or in refugee camps. They receive no or very little support to deal with the violence they experienced.

Our partner organisation EMMA is very active working within the camps and elsewhere: it offers the survivors of sexualised violence assistance, including psychosocial and legal counselling. Our network of local partners also includes the aid organisations KHANZAD, HAUKARI and PDO (People’s Development Organization): they are using all the funding available to them to support survivors in northern Iraq, in order to empower and strengthen them to help them live a future life in dignity and justice. "Each untreated, suppressed trauma continues to affect us. In the long term, it also destroys our social network." In her opening speech to the conference this is how Monika Hauser explained the long-term effects of a lack of support and solidarity, especially for the survivors of sexualised violence.

Baba Sheikh, the religious leader of the Yazidi, issued a religious edict (fatwa) in 2015 declaring that the kidnapped women should be accepted back into the religious community, which is generally very strict and conservative. He declared it to be the religious duty of every family to welcome and honour the survivors of sexualised wartime violence for the suffering they endured. For many women this was at least a first step towards recognition as a war victim and a corresponding improvement in their situation.

No end to the violence: Discrimination against children of IS rape

A further aspect of this situation which has been ignored for a long time is the fate of the children who were conceived during IS captivity. Many people in their home country exclude them as "IS bastards". And according to Iraqi law, a child of a Muslim man is automatically Muslim. Many women and girls who were enslaved by the IS had to disown their children or give them up into custody of the Iraqi authorities when they re-entered the country. In Mosul, thousands of these abandoned children are living in orphanages or with foster parents. Monika Hauser considers this to be a development with fatal consequences: "Growing up in an institution, separated from your family and being called IS bastards, these children will become a new, extremely traumatised generation."

There has been a recent development which the women's activists at EMMA have long been campaigning for. On the same date as the start of the peace conference, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council announced its decision that all children returning from being held captive by the Islamic terrorist militias should be welcomed into the Yazidi community. This religious edict was a true innovation, since acceptance into the Yazidi religious community was previously only possible by birth to Yazidi parents. Hope filled the hearts of many mothers: their wish for a future living together with their children without disdain or prejudice. However, it was not to be: just a few days after the fatwa was issued, a clarification was issued to affirm that it still excludes children conceived during rape by IS fighters.

Overcoming divisions in society – Enabling healing

This discrimination against survivors of sexualised violence and their children conceived in rape is a worldwide phenomenon. medica mondiale has been confronted with this in all of the war and crisis areas it works in: whether Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda or Afghanistan. It is something which makes overcoming traumatic wartime experiences very difficult. The effort needed to heal physical and psychological injuries as well as to ensure that violence is avoided in the long-term requires a joint act of solidarity and strength by both society and the affected individuals. Monika Hauser: "If the victims of war continue to experience new violence and to be isolated after the war, then the war has not actually ended. We see situations of general mistrust, with groups of victims being divided and viewed negatively: here we are called upon to use political, humanitarian and psychosocial measures in a supportive way in order to overcome these divisions in society!"

Author: Christine Vallbracht, Online Officer at medica mondiale

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