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Giving women a voice

"It is now up to us women to make sure we use the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad to multiply her voice many times over", says Barbara Mali, who leads NPA's work offering assistance to Yazidi survivors of ISIS captivity in Iraq.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad and Dennis Mukwege is an outstanding opportunity to draw attention to work against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), says Barbara Mali, head of the Norwegian People’s Aid SGBV programme in Iraq.

Barbara Mali both developed and now leads the Norwegian People’s Aid «Women Protection & Empowerment Programme» in northern Iraq. She has been personally invited to the peace prize award ceremony by Nadia Murad.

“We started our work in Iraq in 2016 and now are supporting four women centres, both inside and outside refugee camps, which are run by our partner organisations. We take in and help all women who have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence,” she tells us.

In 2014, forces from the Islamist group, ISIS, attacked the Sinjar district and kidnapped around 7000 women, men and children from the minority Yazidi population.

“We assume that most of the men were killed immediately while the women and children were abducted. Young boys were separated from their parents, indoctrinated with ISIS ideology and radicalized. The women and girls were given to IS soldiers, who kept them as sex slaves or sold them on. As far as we know, most of the women and children who remain in captivity are in Syria, but we have no idea how many are still alive,” says Mali.

Around 3000 Yazidis have so far been saved from ISIS’ clutches. Peace prize winner Nadia Murad was one of the Yazidi women who were kidnapped. She managed to escape in 2015 after being held captive for a three-month period during which she was sold and raped in the most gruesome fashion.

Acute and long-term work

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Barbara Mali both developed and now leads the Norwegian People’s Aid «Women Protection & Empowerment Programme» in northern Iraq.

Over 1000 Yazidi women have now been treated at one of the NPA-supported centres after having escaped ISIS captivity.

“These are the survivors of the genocide of Yazidis in Sinjar. We knew these women would be in sore need of help owing to the traumas they suffer as a consequence of the terrible things they have experienced, but our centres turn no-one away. Altogether, 3300 women who have been exposed to SGBV have been through our programme,” says Mali.

Norwegian People’s Aid also has a separate programme for men.

“In Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, patriarchy remains strong. Men have all the power while women are subject to men’s control at all times. If we’re going to be able to prevent violence and abuse of women and children in the home and in local communities, we must educate men so that they understand that women have the same rights as men,” she says.  

The Norwegian People’s Aid programme has a holistic approach.

“For the Yazidi women who have been saved from ISIS, healing is the first step. This means having their basic needs such as food and shelter met, as well as legal assistance and psychological help to tackle trauma. We also help them to start up small businesses such as tailoring or hairdressing, for example, so that they can earn a little money. Most of these women have nothing to return to. Their families have often been killed, are missing or living in refugee camps,” says Mali.

The next step is to empower the genocide survivors.

“This means teaching them to negotiate and deal with conflict, and make them aware of their rights so that they can gain increased influence in their families.  SGBV is used in all societies as a means to repress women– to ensure they feel powerless and scared – and it is these structures we are trying to break down in the long term,” she says.

Psychological warfare

Norwegian People’s Aid made requests that partner organisations recruit women to head their programme.

“Today all the programme leaders are women. Many women are also on the staff, while the men’s role is to be an ally in the women’s fight for liberation and their right to equal treatment,” says Mali.  

The Yazidi women who arrive at the centres following ISIS captivity have often had their freedom purchased by their families.

“The families are placed in an extremely difficult situation. They have lost everything and are living in refugee camps, and are forced to borrow money and pay smugglers to get their women and girls returned home,” she says.

In 2014, in the Sinjar village of Kocho, IS rounded up 1200 villagers at the local school. The men were led away and killed and the women were abducted, raped and sold as sex slaves.

“When I visited the school, they had hung up pictures of all those who were killed, abducted and still missing. One of the pictures made a particularly strong impression on me. It was of a young girl, no more than 11 years old, who was hung up, strangled and beaten. It was a dreadful picture, and it turned out to have been sent to her family by ISIS to scare them from trying to help her escape. It’s psychological warfare, plain and simple,” says Mali.

Important voice

Working with victims of SGBV is both demanding and difficult.

“It was very tough to begin with. I think both Norwegian People’s Aid and other organisations underestimate how much it drains the staff. When you meet women who have been raped or threatened with ‘honour killings’, fighting for her to stay alive and get back on her feet does something to you,” says Mali.

That the Yazidi religious leader, Baba Sheikh, has declared all Yazidi women formerly held as sex slaves by ISIS to be welcome back in Yazidi society is unique. In the Middle East, the common view is that rape is the victim’s fault.

“The women who have survived the genocide of the Yazidis – which is still going on as many remain in ISIS captivity – have an important voice in bringing attention to what has happened to them and to SGBV is general,” Mali says.

“Activists like Nadia Murad have undergone extreme emotional strain and are re-traumatised every time they are asked to recount their stories. They do it over and again in the hope that it will lead to change. The peace prize to Nadia goes to her and to all women who speak out about sexual violence. Rape is rape. Whether it happens in Iraq or Norway, it’s extremely traumatic for the victim,” she says.

This is exactly why it is so important to empower women: so that they get a voice and an active place at the table where decisions are taken.

“It’s the only way to prevent SGBV, and that’s what we’re working towards in our programme. It’s now up to us women to make sure we use the award of the peace prize to Nadia Murad to multiply her voice many times over. The MeToo movement has been a real eye-opener for many women and the women’s movement has been reinvigorated. I hope that the peace prize will contribute to greater togetherness among women so that we can collectively get out a message of equality to the media and politicians. A fairer gender balance will lead to sexual and gender-based violence being reduced in the long term. The prize has given us a platform; the rest is now up to us,” says Barbara Mali.

10.12.2018 | Sissel Fantoft