After years of ISIS abuse, Yazidi women are learning the skills to support themselves and build sustainable futures.
In public, Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS are treated as heroes, survivors of a horrific ordeal that shocked the world. Community leaders give speeches emphasizing the support they receive after being welcomed back from captivity, where many endured years of sexual slavery and torture. But for some, freedom has brought new hardships and the reality that life can never be the same.
“On an official level, and in media reports, it’s conveyed that these survivors are celebrated and supported, but in reality, they are excluded from society,” says Naam Al-Hussain, 34, who founded the Roja Shingal Human Rights Organization to support Yazidi women and girls. “They hold interviews with them, but nobody is really helping them, they are being shamed for what they went through,” she says.
The accounts she hears sitting opposite sobbing women, many of them young girls when they were abducted by ISIS, are devastating. Most have been raped and tortured, and some suffer constant pain from life-changing injuries. Many are also dealing with psychological trauma, their lives shattered by years of war and abuse.
The damages to the Yazidi community
According to the UN, around 5,000 Yazidis were killed and 7,000 women and girls were forced into sex slavery, though the exact number is unknown. At present, 35 women and girls receive support from Hussain’s organization, but she’s worked with more than 4,000 over the years and seen firsthand the damage done to the Yazidi community.
One woman Hussain worked with was barely alive when liberating forces found her. She was just 15 when ISIS surrounded Sinjar in 2014, the region in northern Iraq that was home to around 400,000 Yazidis. Taken to Syria, she endured three years of slavery before being badly injured in airstrikes. ISIS conducted surgeries on her without anesthetics, inserting dirty metal plates into the wounds. When liberating forces found her, she was pregnant, with a severe infection in her bones. “Her body was broken,” Hussain says.
Unable to secure funds for the operations she needed, Hussain raised the money herself, paying over $11,000 for treatments in Erbil.
Much of the work she does with Yazidi survivors focuses on economic opportunities, helping them to build and sustain independent lives. “These women have been excluded from their community so we’re helping them to address mental health issues but also equipping them with the skills they need to be self-reliant,” she says.
Ideas Beyond Borders is providing an Innovation Hub grant to fund a two-month entrepreneurship project for Yazidi female survivors looking to start their own businesses. Beginning in October, the workshops will focus on starting and managing small livelihood projects as well as practical skills like driving.
“What happened to Yazidis remains a scar in the history of us as species; the only way to heal that scar is to get Yazidis to get back on their feet and empower them to find market solutions to the challenges they face so they don’t need to depend on anyone but themselves.” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
Many of the women Hussain works with live in refugee camps and struggle to afford food for their families. “Most of these women lost the male members of their families during the war and they are left to support the children. In many cases, they are unable to provide them with the basic requirements of life,” she says.
“They are just looking for an opportunity to earn money or start their own business, even if it’s on a very small scale. Giving them this opportunity could save their lives and those of their children.”