ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — World renowned gynecologist and women’s rights campaigner Dr Denis Mukwege visited Duhok and Lalish in late June to meet Yezidi women recovering from the ordeal of sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS.
Mukwege, 63, who is widely celebrated for his work treating victims of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), says Yezidi women share the same needs as rape survivors in conflict zones elsewhere.
“Sexual violence is equal everywhere,” he told Rudaw English.
In the summer of 2014, ISIS militants blitzed across northern Iraq, conquering major cities along the Tigris River Valley and the homelands of the Yezidi minority in Shingal.
Thousands of Yezidis were rounded up and slaughtered; more than 6,400 Yezidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Although around 3,200 were later rescued or escaped, many are still missing.
“Can we imagine, in the 21st century, women being sold as animals? This is not acceptable. And we are responsible. All of us … We have to take our responsibility and just say that this should not happen - never again,” Mukwege said.
Although wars are fought by different means and for different ends, Mukwege says the use of rape in conflict has the same goal and the same consequences everywhere.
“When you can discuss with women coming from Colombia, Bosnia, Congo, Liberia, Sudan, everywhere, you can see that now in all conflicts women are victims,” Mukwege said. “So if there is conflict, we need to really think about this question: Why are men using rape as a weapon of war?
Photo: Panzi Foundation
“It’s only because rape as a weapon of war is very effective. It’s not only destroying the victims but it’s destroying all the community, destroying family, destroying society.
“Most of the time, men are the ones doing the fighting for power. But the victims are women and children. And after the war, most of the time, women and children are just forgotten.
“And this is terrible because it’s just to destroy not only the victims, but also the next generation. Because now women are thinking the only solution is to leave the country. This is not a solution.
Many of these displaced Yezidi women now live in camps in the Kurdistan Region, while others have been granted asylum in Europe and other countries for specialist care. Fearing their rapists are still at large, and that security forces will again fail to protect them, most will not return.
“If all of them leave the country, they are just going to disappear,” Mukwege said. “They have identity. They have to protect their identity. But how can they protect their identity if they don’t feel they are protected?”
Dr Mukwege visits an IDP camp in Duhok in late-June 2018. Photo: Mukwege Foundation
Mukwege was invited to the region by Yazda, an NGO created in 2014 to help Yezidi women raped by ISIS militants recover and reintegrate. He took part in a workshop to pass on his expertise.
He also met with Khurto Hajji Ismail, the spiritual leader of the Yezidis, who broke with tradition and decreed the victims of rape must not be stigmatized.
“I visited Baba Sheikh and we discussed how displaced Yezidi women should come back in the community and be reintegrated into the community,” said Mukwege.
“This is something he did in the community that is really wonderful, because the big problems we are facing in many countries is with religious authorities who are just excluding women because they were raped. And it’s not their fault. It’s because they are not protected that this happens. So if you exclude them after, you don’t protect them. It just punishes them a second time.”
Photo: Panzi Foundation
June 19 was the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The theme for 2018 was the plight and rights of children born of war.
Speaking in Baghdad on June 27, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance (DSRSG), Alice Walpole, called for the protection of children born out of rape.
“Women and children usually suffer the brunt of armed conflicts. For those that lived under ISIL however, the suffering was unprecedented. This suffering unfortunately continues as they are often rejected by the society and viewed as affiliates rather than victims,” she said.
“I, therefore, urge the Government to ensure that children born of rape grow up in dignity, with official legal status, so as not to be perpetually marginalised and stigmatized,” Walpole added.
Mukwege says the international community also has a part to play in helping Yezidi women find justice.
“Even if the one who committed the rape is not known, there are commanders, and these commanders must be responsible for what happened for Yezidi women,” he said. “And I think if they can get justice, they also have to get reparations for what happened.”
Mukwege recommends an holistic approach to help victims of rape in war, including medical treatment, psychological support, socio-economic assistance, and legal aid.
“If we don’t work on these four pillars, my conclusion is you can’t really restore the dignity of women and give them a new life,” he concluded.