In an important decision the Yazidi community spiritual leadership issued a ruling to aid the integration of children of women who had been kidnapped by ISIS.
Murad Ismael of Yazda writes “In a historic move, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council issues a statement to welcome all survivors, including women and their children born out of rape. We now hope to retrieve hundreds of women and their children from Syria”
This has been a difficult, challenging and controversial issue for the community. In 2014 ISIS attacked Sinjar and more than 500,000 Yazidis were displaced while thousands were systematically murdered. More than 5,000 women were sold into slavery. 3,000 Yazidis are still missing.
The ruling by the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council comes amid a push by Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad to seek justice for victims of the ISIS genocide. She has said that ISIS perpetrators of the 2014 genocide must be brought to justice. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Murad and another activist for their work to raise awareness about the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In addition dozens of Yazidi victims, including their children, were repatriated to Iraq after being liberated in Syria from the clutches of ISIS during the SDF-led Coalition-backed Operation Roundup that began in September 2018. Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer, has been pressing to bring charges against specific ISIS rapists and collaborators.
I spoke to Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, director of the German NGO Wadi, which promotes self-help programs in the Middle East since 1992. He says this ruling is very important for helping mothers and children. “In their [Yazidi] tradition this is dishonoring and ISIS knew what they were doing by raping and selling [the women] as slaves and abusing them sexually, so it was important that they released this declaration that they welcomed the girls back and reintegrate the girls into the community,” he says.
He says that ISIS use of systematic rape was designed to make women pregnant and to use this against the community. He links it with other examples of rape used in war, such as in Darfur and Bangladesh. “It was clear there will be babies and the longer the girls are in captivity, the higher the possibility that they get pregnant.”
“We were thinking how to solve this issue in a cultural-sensible way,” says Osten-Sacken. “The girls and the children shouldn’t pay a price for the genocide that ISIS did, so we understand it was best to give the women the chance to decide, do they want to keep the children or keep them in safe hands, so the concept was to create a safe house and if they want to leave the community and go abroad they could, or they could allow the children to be adopted,” he says.
Since 2017 Yazidis told Wadi that they had more and more cases of women coming back from ISIS captivity with babies and children. Some of these children ended up in orphanages, stigmatized as ISIS children. From the Iraqi legal standpoint and also that of Islamic religious authorities the children were seen as Muslims. For the Yazidi community this was also an issue. For years therefore from 2014 to 2019 the hurdle of how to deal with the children was a challenge. Sometimes it was quietly hidden, or women felt they couldn’t return with the children, so the children were adopted. Some women went abroad, hosted by refugee and other assistance programs. By going abroad the children could be registered as Yazidi in passports, which was a promising loop-hole. However now with more women returning and more children, there was pressure to find an answer. President Barham Saleh of Iraq was helped. He also met Nadia Murad.
The issue is one of many facing the Yazidi community. 3,000 Yazidis are missing. In addition Sinjar has not been rebuilt. Yazidis in Sinjar who did return feel unsafe and they also lack basic medical services.
Recent articles have shed light on the plight of the women and the difficulty in handling this sensitive issue. A article by Elgibali at Medium discusses the case of one woman “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 it appears these difficult decisions may be smoothed. It will also help women who are in Syria with their children return to their community in Iraq.