“When we talk about her escape she becomes agitated and upset. While held in slavery by IS, she gave birth to a child. At the Syrian-Kurdish border she was told she could cross, but her child had to stay behind.”
Sitting on the floor of one of the small trailers set up for Yazidi refugees, the young woman I am talking to escaped from Islamic State (IS) slavery just days before. She is nervous and jittery. Sharing the broad strokes of her story, I find out that along with hundreds of other women, she was kidnapped from the Sinjar Mountains. She witnessed the male members of her family and community brutally murdered by IS, then she was violated, held captive, and sold to an IS fighter to be his sex slave. Repeatedly raped and mentally abused throughout her captivity, as she retells her story to me in June 2017 at a refugee camp outside of Duhok, Kurdistan, she is quite calm.
When we talk about her escape, though, she becomes agitated and upset. While held in slavery by IS she gave birth to a child. Two days earlier, at the Syrian-Kurdish border, she was told she could cross, but her child had to stay behind. There is no way to know the fate of the child; there is nothing she can do to get him back. She felt she had no other option, but the guilt is eating at her.
Now that the last pieces of territory under IS control are being liberated, we are seeing more and more Yazidi women who want to return to what’s left of their families, but who are confronted with this terrible choice.
Having already gone through the worst degradation and atrocities, these survivors aren’t even allowed to make decisions about the fate of their children.
Since 2015, Wadi, the German-Iraqi organization that I work for, has been working to provide support and solutions for Yazidi women and children survivors. Every day we are dealing with women, like the one I met, choosing between their children conceived in rape and going home.
Why Punish Traumatized Women and their Innocent Children?
To answer that we need to talk about how religion and identity are deeply intertwined in the Middle East (ME). In Iraq (and all ME countries except Tunisia and Israel), your religion is stamped into your passport, on your national ID card, and your driver’s license. Also in Iraq, Family Law is not the same for all; it is delegated to the religious courts. Even though everyone is Iraqi, technically, if a Christian couple seeks a divorce, different laws apply to that couple versus a Muslim husband and wife also divorcing.
Yazidis are a religious and ethnic minority who marry and live within their community. They are not Muslim. In the eyes of the community and the law, the children born from IS fathers belong to their fathers. Islam is a patrilineal religion. While a Muslim man is allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman, any children resulting from that union are automatically deemed Muslim. If something happens to the father, the non-Muslim mother is still obligated to raise that child as a Muslim.
The Yazidis in a Post-Genocide Reality
Villages such as Kochi, a centuries’ old center of the Yazidi community, is still completely destroyed. Mass graves are still being discovered all over Northern Iraq. Grappling with the aftermath of an attempted genocide, the prospect of having to raise Muslim children is perceived as a continued attempt at extermination.
There are a few Yazidi women survivors who were able to keep the children that they had while in IS captivity. However, they are facing a difficult time reintegrating into their families, their villages, and their communities. When others look at their children they see IS fighters, the mothers are isolated and shunned.
We must not allow this to continue. We know from Darfur, where women were raped and where children resulted from those rapes, the devastating second-generation societal and economical impact of this tool of war. Those women are now forced to live in a no-man’s land between Sudan and Chad where they raise their children with little support and little hope for the future. Ostracizing and punishing Yazidi women for being raped, and their children for being born, will be a long term win for IS, planting the seeds of hatred in the next generation.
Finding Solutions to the Unimaginable
It doesn’t have to be like this. Although the situation seems hopelessly tragic and impossibly complex, there is another solution. These children do not have to be labeled “Muslim”. The laws governing birth and religion can be changed. Recently, Iraqi President Barham Saleh submitted a bill to Parliament calling for legal and humanitarian support for these women and their children.
The bill aims to “provide the required care, housing and studying opportunities for Yazidi women as well as address the legal status for children born during these circumstances,” according to the President’s office. Yet, it is unclear if the bill will pass. Even if it does, slow bureaucratic processes could leave hundreds of women’s lives in limbo. It is also not clear if Iraqi Parliament can even implement the measure.
However, the federal political structures in Iraq allow the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to act autonomously from the central government in Baghdad. The Yazidi Holy Council has also stated that they support action on this issue and are asking Western countries for their support moving forward. Thus, we are asking that the KRG use their authority to make the right decision and allow these few thousand children to have Yazidi papers issued, quickly.
Where are the Yazidi Women in these Discussions?
Meanwhile, in all these discussions over the children’s fate, a very important voice has been lost. No one has asked the Yazidi women what they want. Without any form of legal recourse, knowledge, or support, they are being forced to make heart-breaking decisions. These women, who have been to hell and back, are being actively re-victimized.
Wadi wants to change this. We want to open a sanctuary where returning Yazidi women can stay with their children for a few months. They would receive counseling, therapy, social support, food, and shelter. They would have a chance to think and to decide for themselves what future they want to have. If they wish to keep the children it should be their right to do so, and they need to be supported through that. If they wish to relinquish their children, transparent adoption procedures need to be arranged; children should not be abandoned at orphanages. Women who no longer wish to live in their birth communities should also be granted asylum to countries where they can receive intensive therapy and have a chance to build a new life. With support from the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1,100 Yazidis are already rehabilitating there, and the state is actively considering supporting many more.
We need to give these Yazidi women a chance to build a life. If nothing is done, a second generation will inherit IS violence.
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Isis Elgibali is a project coordinator at Wadi organization based in Germany and Iraqi Kurdistan. She works with communities to support self-ownership and citizen participation, with a focus on the improvement of women’s rights, the struggle against domestic violence, and ending female genital mutilation (FGM).