In October, Nadia Murad became the first Iraqi to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Her advocacy has resulted in a UN resolution into Iraqi war crimes. But the silence surrounding her efforts speaks to a widespread and underlying problem.
The Nobel Peace Prize is given to people “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity [sic] between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Murad herself was an Islamic State sex slave for many months and experienced sexual atrocities. Describing her journey to freedom and leadership, she writes,
Attacking Sinjar [in northern Iraq] and taking girls to use as sex slaves wasn’t a spontaneous decision made on the battlefield by a greedy soldier. Islamic State planned it all: how they would come into our homes, what made a girl more or less valuable, which militants deserved a sabaya [sex slave] as incentive and which should pay. They even discussed sabaya in their glossy propaganda magazine, Dabiq, in an attempt to draw new recruits. But Isis is not as original as its members think it is. Rape has been used throughout history as a weapon of war.
Murad is Yazidi, which Vox’s Alexia Underwood describes as “a religious community of about 400,000 people who mainly live in the northern part of Iraq.” She continues, “Murad and about 3,000 other Yazidi women were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by ISIS in 2014, as part of the terrorist group’s genocidal campaign to wipe out the religious minority.”
Murad notes, “For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that started in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full-fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous.”
Murad is clear about what she seeks: “My hope is that all women who speak about their stories of sexual violence are heard and accepted, that their voices are heard so they feel safe.”
Since escaping IS in 2015, Murad has been telling her story to raise awareness of human trafficking and advocating for the UN to bring IS to justice. And she has been successful. VOA News reports, “The UN Security Council adopted a resolution in September 2017 to bring those responsible for Islamic State group war crimes to justice—a cause championed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.”
The UN team has been in Iraq since October, preparing the ground for the investigative probe, which is scheduled to begin in 2019. Much of the preparation seems to be focused on ensuring cooperation from Baghdad. In addition to the reported sexual crimes against women and girls, the UN is describing the massacre of Yazidis as a genocide. According to the Daily Star, reprinting a story from AFP, “More than 200 mass graves containing up to 12,000 bodies have been recently discovered in Iraq, providing evidence of war crimes by IS.”
“But,” Daily Signal’s Kelsey Harkness writes, “Nadia’s story is falling on deaf ears. Because being ‘heard’ requires others to listen.” Though AFP reports that the US will provide $2 million for the investigative work, the World Tribune notes that news of Murad winning the Prize, “barely registered on the American media radar screen.”
A new documentary on Murad called On Her Shoulders, filmed and directed by Alexandria Bombach, seeks to change that. It focuses not only on bringing Murad’s story to light, but to refocus it on her campaign—both its victories and what remains to be done. At least 1,000 women and children are still enslaved by IS.
Bombach says, “So much of what had been done to Nadia had been about her captivity, versus talking about her work now.” She describes Murad’s efforts as “a non-stop campaign to ‘push for justice for the Yazidis against ISIS members and also to rebuild Sinjar, (The main city of the Yazidi region in Iraq) making it safe, and it’s just been an endless amount of things that she’s trying to accomplish.’”
The devaluing of women’s lives and bodies is the wider context for this story, as well as how we respond to it.
A new UN report on global homicide finds that, “Around 87,000 women were killed around the world last year, some 50,000—or 58 per cent—at the hands of intimate partners or family members. This amounts to some six women being killed every hour by people they know.”
In Puerto Rico, there is an effort underway to declare a state of emergency over the increase in what is being called “intimate terror,” or “a massacre of gender.” There have been 23 such murders of women in 2018.
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El Nuevo Día writes,
The murder of women is the most extreme in a chain of verbal or physical aggressions, explicit or overlapping, that are repeated in all the scenarios of our work with the shameful consent of a large part of society. They are abuses based on unworthy customs that assign women a lower status. Transforming this absurdity requires firm will and comprehensive actions.
It further notes, “The problem is acute in Puerto Rico. That three of the murders that occurred here this year were perpetrated by police demonstrates that something is wrong with the State’s own power structures.”
Women have been taking to the street in San Juan to protest, shouting “Not one more!” Police have responded with repressive measures, including tear gas. As the article notes, protesting is a legitimate form of participatory democracy. To date, Governor Rosselló holds that an increase in the incidence of sexist crimes does not warrant a state of emergency response. He also argues that addressing it is not the sole responsibility of government.
El Pais’ Elena Reina, Centenera Sea, and Santiago Torrado write that, according to UN Women, “Latin America is the most lethal place for them outside a war zone.”
The refugees traveling to our southern border—the so-called “migrant caravan,” a contested label—are doing so for many reasons that make their lives at home unbearable, but one that, though mentioned, has been overlooked is femicide: “the killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.”
The Boston Globe’s Stephen Kinder writes, “In recent years this plague has reached dramatic proportions.” Among countries that are technically not at war, the three countries with the highest rates of femicide are Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—the same ones from which the refugees flee.
Kinder explains, “In Honduras, which is the size of Ohio, a woman is murdered every 16 hours. El Salvador has reached an even grimmer position on the hour list: world’s highest rate of femicide…The attorney general of Guatemala, where the murder of women is a daily occurrence, estimates that half of the victims had been lured or forced into sex trade.”
He continues, “Women in Central America who escape the clutches of criminal gangs often face violence at home…A UN representative in El Salvador recently called the sexual abuse of children there a ‘very profound, difficult, and serious’ problem.” In fact, the daughter of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has “accused him of sexually abusing her for more than a decade beginning when she was eleven.”
Further, women at the forefront of social movements. Kinder again, “They have given a distinctly feminine face to political protest, turning political repression into another form of gender violence.”
He sums it up: “These threats to Central American women—assault at home, abuse at the hands of criminal gangs, and violent punishment for those who protest—propel many to flee…As these women take the unarmed road of flight, they risk another form of abuse. They are easy prey for predators on both sides of the law.”
When Tarana Burke spoke at last month’s Facing Race conference, she talked about how the #MeToo movement started with her working with youth in an after-school program and learning that the majority of the girls were sexually abused. She began to see it as a community issue, rather than a family issue. But the prevailing response to her attempts to get the community to see it as an issue and address it was the assertion that it was dangerous for the men in the black community to be held accountable because of racism.
Burke also spoke about the need to move beyond intersectionality. She said, “Allyship is beautiful, but we’re talking about black and brown girls. If these people get what they need, white women will get what they need.”
Harkness’s aforementioned article is headlined, “A Rape Survivor Just Won the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘Feminist’ Are Nowhere to Be Found.” She notes that, “Nadia is a lonely voice in the fight against ISIS genocide.” Harkness, who appears white, compares the response to the one towards Christine Blasey Ford in the Kavanaugh hearings. She writes, “it’s our job as feminists to look beyond ourselves and realize that Nadia’s fight is our fight.”
How do we, nonprofits and social movements, address the devaluing of women and the feminine—the source of many of the social issues on which we work—including in our own work? Further, how do we prioritize the design of solutions for those most impacted? It will take many small (and large) steps on our part to get there.—Cyndi Suarez