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The Fight for Justice for Yazidi Women: In Conversation with Nadia Murad

Updated: Mar 26

Nadia Murad is a Yazidi human rights activist. In 2014, she was abducted from her hometown in Iraq, Kocho, by the Islamic State, as part of the Yazidi genocide. After her escape, she founded Nadia's Initiative, which advocates for survivors of sexual violence. In 2018, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Denis Mukwege for her fight to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflicts.



CJLPA: Throughout history and to present day, we see that whenever armed conflict arises, rape and brutality against women and girls follow. Just recently, we see it repeat in Palestine, Israel, and Ukraine. Outside of war, we see it embedded in society with high rape crimes, forced marriages, inability to choose what we do with our body (whether wanting an abortion or the force of FGM). We expect more for women’s rights. Despite acclaimed efforts from the UN, NGOs, and Member States, in your opinion why does inequality remain a leading global crisis to combat?

 

Nadia Murad: This is a really interesting question, and you are right because women, wherever in the world they live, are still not afforded true equality.

 

This inequality is historical, systemic, and cultural. It exists because no one in power has ever felt the want or need to change it. Why would they?

 

To truly combat inequality, we need to completely rethink the way we approach society.

 

From their earliest years, children need to see gender equality modelled at home. Both boys and girls should have access to secondary schooling, where the curriculum promotes equality, and the infrastructure of the school building allows girls privacy when changing for sports lessons and access to facilities and necessary products when they have their periods.

 

Additionally, equality needs to be built into our systems. That begins with basic rights like bodily autonomy and equal pay—but carries on into meaningful female representation in politics, the judiciary and in policy work.

 

I think we need to look very carefully at our world and ask if it is working well as it is—or do we need to change the way we think?

 

CJLPA: Further to the above, what are the biggest disappointments from the international community and their responses in respect to helping the victims of sexual violence from armed conflicts? This could be inaction during the conflict, perhaps enabling it (funding state actors responsible), or the response in helping victims after. 

 

NM: I am always disappointed when survivors, like me, give so much of ourselves to tell our stories on a public platform, just to be met with kind words but little meaningful action. From the earliest records of history to the first written stories and poems, women have been used and abused in wartime. For thousands of years it has been accepted. As we saw in Iraq, this abuse is not a momentary loss of morals in the midst of battle on the part of the perpetrators. It is a tactic deployed to break not only the women, but their communities as well. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used rape as a weapon of genocide. I have been calling for 9 years for the ISIS militants who raped my friends and family members in Iraq to be tried for their crimes. Thousands of Yazidi girls have given testimonies to investigators—at personal cost. Yet only 3 militants have been to court on the charge of genocide. I am disappointed that the international community and the Iraqi government isn’t moving faster here. After all, unless we start showing the world that these kind of heinous crimes will not be tolerated, then sexual violence in conflict will continue with impunity for perpetrators.

 

This perhaps feeds back into your first question about inequality. Perhaps the international community doesn’t see rape and the ensuing lifelong trauma as problematic enough. It still accepts rape, which mainly happens to women, as simply a side effect of wars begun by men.

 

CJLPA: What has been overshadowed and not emphasized enough in our world and yet is fundamental for our understanding in helping the victims of the targeted violence against the Yazidi women, and victims from all armed conflicts?

 

NM: I don’t believe enough emphasis is placed on survivor-centred policies. Only survivors know what they need and what is best for them and their communities for the long term. That’s why Nadia’s Initiative works with and for survivors in Sinjar to rebuild infrastructure like schools and hospitals, but also run educational and economic programs and projects.


A photo from Nadia's recent trip to Sinjar. She is embracing a mother at the cemetery at Kocho (Nadia's village). The mother told Nadia that she is terrified she will die before she can be reunited with the bodies of her sons. 400 men were murdered in Kocho in August 2014.

I think that authorities and organizations are often not practical enough in the help they give the victims of conflict related sexual violence. These survivors, who are often stigmatized, need meaningful reparations to rebuild their lives. This could come in financial form, but also in psycho-social support or help with housing.

 

There is also another dimension to the support we can give survivors, and that is how they are treated by investigators and reporters. These vulnerable women are at risk of retraumatisation every time they re-tell their story. This is why I happily put my name to the Murad Code, which is a code of conduct that investigators and reporters should adhere to when speaking to survivors. It allows them agency and control whilst promoting honesty and safety throughout the process.

 

CJLPA: For you, what is the meaning of ‘justice’?  Can we ever find ‘justice’ for even the most grotesque crimes against humanity such as those inflicted on the Yazidi women and girls? If so, how?

 

NM: I am often asked this question and I have come to believe that justice is multifaceted. For my community it is certainly judicial; our attackers must be held accountable in court for the evil crimes they committed against us. However, justice can also be more practical; we must rescue the missing women and girls so families can be reunited and reparations can be granted so lives can begin again. Justice can also be more emotional; it can be having a space to grieve for our lost loved ones and it can be found in the acknowledgment of our pain. And, justice can also be found in healing and surviving, in showing the ISIS militants that they did not succeed in eradicating the Yazidi community.

 

CJLPA: How would you like to see the perpetrators held accountable for these crimes?

 

NM: My counsel, the barrister Amal Clooney, and I, have been advocating for the implementation of a hybrid court. It would be an internationally supported tribunal which would sit in Baghdad and act as a continuation of UNITAD (the UN team which is investigating ISIS crimes in Iraq). There are a vast number of fighters to process, more than any national court could process at scale, so there would have to be international cooperation and financial backing. This hybrid court would need to be operated in tandem with another country which could then hold homegrown and foreign fighters accountable for the crime of genocide. At the moment they are charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ which is far more anodyne than the genocide charge of which they are also guilty.

 

CJLPA: Can you walk us through what happened to the Yazidi women and children upon their escape? What reparations did they receive and to what extent were they supported psychologically and financially?

 

NM: Everyone has a different story. I lived in an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp with survivors from my family and then was taken to Germany as a refugee. Thousands of other girls like me are still in camps, without access to privacy, education, or employment. Although the Iraqi government promised reparations—and I am pleased that some Yazidis have benefitted—it has been increasingly hard for many survivors to access them.

 

It is worth saying though that at least two thousand Yazidi women are still in captivity and we also need to work hard to get them home.

 

CJLPA: Further to the above, can you speak about the support that is missing for victims currently?

 

NM: I think that policymakers are often fixed on the short-term and the quick fix for survivors. However, rebuilding communities sustainably requires long-term vision and planning. That's why my initiative plans for decades rather than days. We run economic empowerment and educational programs. We help women set up businesses and then give the support they need to succeed.

 

Survivors need to know they have a long future in which they can be safe, active, and equal participants in their communities.

 

Nadia at the Yazidi Genocide Memorial in Sinjar, opened October 2023 and built using funds from her peace prize and USAID. It was a project led by Nadia's Initiative and the International Organization on Migration. More details available at <https://www.nadiasinitiative.org/news/nadia-murad-press-release-yazidi-genocide-memorial-inauguration>.

CJLPA: How can the international community help prevent sexual violence from occurring in conflicts? Are there countries currently that you have seen have begun an inspiring change in their policy that other countries should follow?

 

NM: The international community must start prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict so that it is universally acknowledged that it is not acceptable in any country, in any instance. Germany has led the way in prosecuting its ISIS citizens—but much more needs to be done globally.

 

CJLPA: You have devoted your life to combat the sexual violence occurring in conflicts and to help save women and children falling victim to these inhumane crimes. You are constantly meeting with policymakers, NGOs, the UN, and going before the courts. How has this experience been to date? Do you find they are responding with the urgency needed?

 

NM: There is never enough urgency. When I wrote my book, which details the horror of my experience, I said that I wanted to be the last girl this happens to. But I haven’t been the last. There have been so many more which is heartbreaking. It’s not due to a lack of political will, but a lack of political action. I don’t advocate at the UN and with other policy makers just for Yazidi girls, but for all girls. And if we want to keep our girls safe, there has to be a stronger framework.

 

CJLPA: Further to the above, what laws—domestic and international law—do you think need to change in order to ensure accountability? Inaction is a crime in itself. It is one thing to hold the perpetrators accountable, but what about the countries that are able, but unwilling to help?

 

NM: I believe that you are right when you say that inaction is a crime in itself. I often think of the governments who looked the other way when my community was under brutal attack. One of the first steps they can take now is to officially recognise the murder of Yazidis in 2014 as a genocide. The second step is to adopt universal jurisdiction so that more foreign fighters can be prosecuted.


Beyond that I would advocate for reparations for survivors to be put into law. I have been advocating for reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), not just in Iraq, but in other countries where sexual violence has been used in conflict, including in Ukraine, where I asked the President of Ukraine to consider passing a law that will enable survivors of CRSV to receive reparations.

 

CJLPA: You created The Murad Code Project which is a set of guidelines aimed at building a community of better practice for, with, and concerning survivors of systematic and conflict-related sexual violence. Can you briefly walk us through what prompted you to this initiative and your hopes for how it will be used moving forward?


NM: When I first started telling my story, I was interviewed by many investigators and reporters. Some of them had my best interests at heart and treated me with kindness and gave me agency. However, many did not.

 

I was not always aware of how my story would be used and I was subjected to questioning that was heartless. Therefore, I wanted to lend my name, experiences, and expertise to a code that worked to protect other survivors from this.

 

The Murad Code lays out the bare minimum of standards that interviewers should adhere to when they speak to traumatised survivors. It has also been translated into a number of different languages so that survivors know how they should be treated by their interlocutors.

 

I hope that eventually it will be put into policy frameworks, as well as newsrooms, so that survivors are treated as people with agency, not a walking headline.

 

CJLPA: What is a final message you would like to send to the reader, in the name of spreading awareness and inspiring hope?

 

NM: There is always hope. Even when the world seems dark, there are good people working for justice, peace, and a stable future.

 

This interview was conducted by Nadia Jahnecke, Legal Editor and Founder of Human Rights Volume of CJLPA 3. In addition to her role at CJLPA, Nadia is a qualified lawyer in England & Wales specialising in public international law.

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