Emerging from slavery, Yazidi women struggle to recover

Dozens of survivors of abduction and enslavement are receiving care at a UNFPA-supported women’s centre in northern Iraq. © UNFPA Iraq
  • 08 August 2016

KHANKE, Iraq – “Do not blame me for repeating my story, as what happened to me is the unforgettable story of my life,” Golleh*, a Yazidi woman, said. She had been abducted by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS or Da’esh), and enslaved for eight months.

The horrors she and other kidnapped women have experienced can scarcely be imagined.

ISIL sells Yazidi women and girls on slave markets, treating them as property. Many women are subjected to repeated rape. Some are forced to perform domestic labour. Brutality is commonplace.

A United Nations human rights panel has determined that the ongoing campaign of violence against the Yazidis amounts to genocide.

“ISIS has sought to destroy the Yazidis through killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm,” among other cruel measures, said a recent report of the panel.

“I was sold more than once”

The survivors of abduction and enslavement require continuous support. © UNFPA Iraq

Golleh, 50, was taken in August 2014 when ISIL overtook the northern Iraqi district of Sinjar. Two years later, she says the experience remains fresh.

“Even those who were liberated from the hands of Da’esh, like me, are still suffering,” she said. “…I still cannot believe that I am alive.”

She wants the world to know about the slave markets, trafficking and torment, hoping her story will help galvanize action that might save her 5-year-old grandson, who was captured by ISIL and whose whereabouts are unknown.

“I want my voice to be heard by the whole world,” she told a social worker in the Shanaz Women’s Social Centre in Khanke, in northern Iraq.

These sentiments were echoed by Resalah*, 35, another Yazidi woman who frequents the UNFPA-supported centre.

“I was sold more than once,” Resalah said, explaining that she was moved from Iraq to Syria, where she was forced to work from dawn until dusk without rest. Sometimes, she went for days without a meal.

Sharing my experience with social workers here, the way they respond and support me, keeps me stronger.

She was bewildered when the spouse of a man who had purchased her decided to help her escape. “His wife sympathized with me, and helped me run away,” she said.

Resalah managed to cross over the border from Syria to Türkiye, and from there she was helped to return to Iraq, ending up in Khanke. Still, her nightmare is not yet over.

Her daughter was abducted and is still missing. “I heard she is in Syria now, but [I have] no further details,” she said. Her 12-year old son was also taken; Resalah fears he may have been forced to fight, or that he may have been killed.

“I tried to commit suicide more than once… I do not want to keep remembering that bitter experience,” she said.

Today, what keeps her going is her youngest son – the only family member now with her – and the support she receives at the women’s centre.

“Sharing my experience with social workers here, the way they respond and support me, keeps me stronger,” she said.

Finding the strength to go on

Resalah and Golleh are among dozens of Yazidi women who regularly meet with social workers at the Shanaz Women’s Social Centre, said Zhiman Deham, the centre’s director.

In the first five months of this year, some 30 survivors of gender-based violence visited the centre for consultations and psychosocial support. “The majority of them were abducted by IS,” said Ms. Deham, using another abbreviation for ISIL.

Survivors of ISIL need continuous support, she added.

In addition to one-on-one psychological support sessions and referrals to further care, the centre also provides training courses, which can help women learn a new trade, such as hairdressing or sewing. More than 1,000 displaced women have received skills training at the centre.

The centre also holds awareness sessions, teaching women about their human rights and how to obtain legal assistance. Women also receive UNFPA-provided dignity kits, which contain clothing, soap, sanitary napkins and other items needed to maintain good health and hygiene.

“I cannot afford buying [these items] if they would not have given to me,” Resalah said.

The social workers, instructors and other women at the centre have had an enormous impact on her, she emphasized.

“They receive me with a smile, listen to me over and over again… This gives me energy to go on.”

– Khetam Malkawi

*Names changed

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