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Female victims of Islamic State need our help
Penciled on Malcolm Turnbull’s schedule this week was a meeting with a 21-year-old woman named Nadia Murad. Nadia is a human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was kidnapped by Islamic State and sold as a sex slave after her Iraqi village was ransacked. She’s a Yazidi, an ethnic-religious minority that combines ancient Persian, Christian and Islamic beliefs that are considered heretical or “devil worshipping” by IS Jihadists.
Two years ago, Islamic State conquered the Yazidis’ traditional home – the Sinjar district in Northern Iraq – forcing the mass evacuation of almost 300,000 people. It’s impossible to know the casualties amid the chaos, though the UN suggests over 5,000 Yazidis were killed instantly (including Nadia’s mother and all her brothers) and upwards of 7,000 were kidnapped. The young boys were recruited, brainwashed and turned into IS child soldiers and the women and girls – some just children – taken as sex slaves or “gifted” as wives to Jihadi fighters. Some, like Nadia, managed to escape their hell after a few months by fleeing in the dead of night but there are thought to be more than 3,000 girls and women still being held prisoner, casually swapped between soldiers and bought and sold like cattle. Nadia is here to ask assistance from the Australian government in getting the crimes of ISIS recognised as crimes against humanity, allowing for investigation, and hopefully prosecution, by the International Criminal Court.
You’d think her quest would be a no brainer. This isn’t the Dark Ages where rape and pillage were just part of the “spoils of war” or a form of payment for soldiers who worked without a wage. This isn’t even the 19th century, where the slave trade was still legalised and widespread. This is 2016 and yet women are being systematically rounded up, shipped off and sold at market to the highest bidder.
The thing is, though, hardly anyone is talking about it. Nadia’s meeting with the PM and the Foreign Minister barely warranted a mention. IS have been responsible for any number of unthinkable acts: murder, torture, brainwashing, destruction of land and cities and ancient artefacts, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people; a global reign of terror. All these crimes warrant investigation and prosecution at the highest level. But in this war our greatest failure – and subsequently IS’ greatest achievement – is that by enacting large-scale attacks on the West and by spreading fear that these attacks could happen anywhere and anytime, they’ve managed to distract us from their most basic, insidious and perhaps horrifying act of terror: the systematic genocide of the Yazidi people and the rape, torture and slavery of thousands of women.
Rape is without a doubt the most heinous crime of war and the one with the most far-reaching consequences but too often it goes unreported and un-prosecuted, mostly because it’s considered a “women’s issue” rather than what it is: a cruel and calculating tactic by which to humiliate, devastate and ultimately destroy the enemy.
Rape is no longer a “spoil” of war. It is a tactical assault – as strategic as the planting of any bomb – that leaves a deep, ugly scar which is painful and slow to heal.
The reality is that rape has always been a part of war. It’s only in the last century that the full scale of the crime has been documented.
200,000 women and children are estimated to have been raped during the Congolese conflict. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of women have been raped in South Sudan in similar battles. Going further back, upwards of 2 million German women were raped by the Red Army soldiers in WWII and the Japanese were known to keep over 200,000 “comfort women” hostage in brothels to serve the sexual needs of their soldiers. Recently discovered reports show that American GI’s were responsible for more than 400 rapes in Europe and over 14,000 in Britain between 1942-1945. That’s only in the 20th century and only in a few major conflicts, and those are all rapes that went un-prosecuted.
In fact, rape has only been considered a crime against humanity since 1998 following the discovery of the “rape camps” used by Serb soldiers to impregnate Muslim women during the Bosnian war. It’s estimated that in that conflict over 50,000 women were raped and sexually assaulted. At around the same time, the International Criminal Court set about prosecuting those responsible for the rape of nearly 500,000 Tutsi women (and their sympathisers) during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
For some of these women, there has been closure in knowing that their perpetrators have been punished. For most, the consequences stay with them their entire lives.
This is why rape – above murder and above destruction and displacement – is the single most heinous war crime. Murder takes a life but rape destroys it.
Psychological and physical trauma, societal shame, STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, backstreet abortions, serious lifelong gynaecological issues; these are standard in rape – wartime or otherwise. However, because war rapes often take place where infrastructure has been destroyed or compromised, access to immediate medical aid is limited. Beyond that, war rape has deeper connotations of crippling misogyny, abuse of power and even genocide. In the Rwandan conflict, more than 67% of women who were raped became infected with HIV/AIDS, in many cases passed on purposefully to infect, and wipe out the population. At the same time, more than 20,000 children were estimated to have been born as a result of these rapes, children who have now become a generation to grow up orphaned.
In conflicts like Bosnia, where rape was practiced by Serbs specifically to create more Serb children and “cleanse” the Muslim population, children born to rape, stigmatised as children of the enemy, faced an uncertain future. In places like Iraq, the children born from this latest conflict will, under Iraqi law, be treated as if they’re born from adultery, which means their own mothers won’t be allowed to raise them. In many places, these “bastard” children are also not entitled to birth certificates or passports and are not able to receive any government assistance, benefits or even work. The economic impacts are enormous, let alone the emotional ones: the war may be over but the children remain as constant reminders of the conflict – both to the mother and to the (often conservative) society who must deal with the “shame” that comes from having their women raped by the enemy. Beyond that, women are expected to forget what happened to them and move on in an attempt to foster peace and prosperity, which means they don’t report these crimes, making them harder to prosecute or seek help or compensation which then, in turn, makes men more likely to re-offend.
…And the cycle continues.
These are all the reasons we need to talk about it and why we need to pay more attention to it. Rape is no longer a “spoil” of war. It is a tactical assault – as strategic as the planting of any bomb – that leaves a deep, ugly scar which is painful and slow to heal. Prosecuting rape as a war crime is just as important, if not more so, than prosecuting other crimes against humanity.
This is where Nadia Murad and her visit comes in. Whilst many global organisations around the world (such as the UN) have recognised the actions of ISIS as crimes against humanity, in order for them to be investigated before the International Criminal Court, a member country – such as Australia – must refer the case.
I have no idea how the meeting went down between this brave, young woman and our Prime Minister, but I can only hope that she was successful – that her trip hasn’t been in vain, and that instead of closing borders and stopping boats and engaging in useless rhetoric about the terror threat reaching our shores, we might be able to use our global authority to do something useful for the people most affected by the scourge of IS.
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to hold these maniacs accountable under international law, especially when the conflict is ongoing. Places like Australia have already made clear that they’ll prosecute anyone returning from Syria or Iraq – whether they fought for or against IS. The difference is, they’ll most likely be charged with participating in a terrorist action, not specifically for crimes of rape or human trafficking. This simply isn’t good enough – in this case, specificity is important.
The fight against ISIS will likely go down as the single most important conflict of my generation. Taking a stand against the terrorist organisation and treating their strategy of rape and slavery as a war crime and not simply “a women’s issue” won’t eradicate rape entirely. But it will show one thing: it will show that we as a global society are serious about women’s rights and that we truly consider them to be human rights. We owe it to these brave women, like Nadia, who are talking about it, rather than being forced to hide in shame.