Iraq’s aid for wartime rape survivors

The world’s approach to sexual violence in conflict has shifted to a focus on restoring the dignity of survivors. Iraq, a land of war, is now a leader in this peace strategy.

Yazidi women weave wool at a carpet factory in Dohuk, Iraq.

Over four decades, the people of Iraq have experienced four wars. The last one was against the Islamic State group (ISIS) between 2014 and 2019. Now a struggling democracy, Iraq recently became a world leader in trying a new concept in ensuring peace. It is restoring the dignity of thousands of survivors of sexual violence.

In March, Iraqi lawmakers voted to compensate women and girls, mainly from the Yazidi religious minority, who were enslaved, raped, and sold by ISIS. These survivors will soon start to receive a plot of land, housing, education, and a quota for jobs in government. The legal status of children born of rape will also be addressed. The reparations are designed to heal individual trauma, reintegrate the survivors into society, and address any social stigma from their experience.

The peace part of the Yazidi Survivors Law lies in turning disgrace into grace. It assists survivors in trading an impression of victimhood for a renewal of their lives – fostering a message that wartime rape does not change someone’s inherent value. The compensation, said Iraqi President Barham Salih, “helps them to achieve the social and economic life that befits them.”

Most gender-based violence during a conflict is aimed at stigmatizing an entire people. Examples are happening now with reports of mass rape in Ethiopia’s attack on Tigray province, Boko Haram’s frequent kidnappings of Nigerian girls, and China’s repression of the Uyghurs. In its attempt to establish a religious caliphate, ISIS tried to either kill or enslave the Yazidi people in northern Iraq along with Christian, Turkmen, and Shabak minorities.

Remove the stigma of sexual violence and it may become less a weapon of war. That idea has steadily grown in international campaigns against wartime rape. The world’s attention on sexual violence in conflicts really began in the 1990s after the Rwanda and Bosnian wars. In 2000, the United Nations acknowledged rape had become a tool of warfare. International courts began to prosecute such crimes. 

By 2008, the U.N. began to focus on preventing rape. In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two campaigners against sexual violence in conflicts. One of them, Nadia Murad, is a former captive of ISIS.

Two years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that places the rights and needs of survivors first. Iraq’s new law shows how much global thinking has shifted, not only away from the notion that wartime rape is inevitable, but also toward a respect for the dignity of survivors, who can help lead the way on the path of lasting peace.

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