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Era of Healing Long Overdue for Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence
After months of negotiations between US diplomats, the Iraqi Kurdistan government, and Kurdish officials in Syria, nine Yazidi women were reunited last month with the children born as a result of their sexual slavery under the Islamic State.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) overran the Yazidi religious minority in August 2014 as part of a violent campaign of attacks across Syria and Iraq. Thousands of Yazidi men were slaughtered in the weeks that followed, while their sisters, mothers and wives were abducted to be trafficked as sex slaves. Tragically, more than 3,000 remain missing, while many women who were rescued following the militant group’s defeat are struggling to reintegrate into a community which refuses to accept their children. One has only to look at the experience of groups like the Lai Dai Han—the children born to Vietnamese women raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War who have faced ostracization and intolerance their entire lives— to see the long-term damage which the Yazidi community will suffer unless it offers adequate support to the survivors of ISIL violence and their children.
Welcomed home, but only without their children
The reunion with their children was a long-awaited one for Yazidi women, who in 2019 were welcomed back into the fold of a community struggling to balance survivors’ needs with their faith’s deep-rooted tenets. That same year, the Supreme Yazidi Spiritual Council issued an edict which seemed to indicate that children born after rape by an ISIL father would be welcomed home; the backlash from some members of the community, however, was instantaneous, and the decision reversed. “According to the principles of our religion, Yazidis are those who are born from Yazidi parents,” Jawhar Ali Beg, deputy of senior Yazidi leader Prince Hazem, explained. “Therefore, we cannot accept children of ISIL. They are automatically born as Muslims according to Iraqi laws.”
Given this intransigent stance from Yazidi leadership, women who survived unimaginable horrors under ISIL’s thumb have faced an agonizing choice between returning to their community and remaining with their children. Until last month, it was a decision they weren’t sure they would even have the chance to make: upon the mothers’ return to Iraq in 2019, their children were seized from them before the border and taken to a Syrian orphanage. Now, under a new US administration and newfound cooperation between leaders on both sides of the border, a few of the families have been reunited.
Even so, the diplomatic marvel has been received with anger by leaders in the community. “Those people who brought back those children without asking Yazidis, or Yazidi leaders, will pay the price for what they did,” criticized senior Yazidi representative Prince Herman. The senior Yazidi spiritual leader was even more explicit, specifying that the women who had chosen to rejoin their children were now exiled and that they were “free to go wherever they want, except our community.”
A time-worn story of stigma and isolation for victims
At first glance, Yazidi elders’ willingness to exile survivors simply for wishing to reunite with their children might seem astonishingly harsh—and in sharp contrast to earlier statements promising that rescued women would not face stigma. As one Yazidi activist noted, the survivors are effectively being “punished twice”, with the devastating choice between their children and their community compounding their existing trauma from their time under the Islamic State. Tragically, however, the Yazidi women’s experience is just the latest case in which survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and their children have suffered from ostracization and lack of support.
The quintessential example is the case of the Lai Dai Han and their mothers, whose plight has come to global attention thanks to Yazidi survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who attended the 2019 unveiling of a statue in central London to honour the Lai Dai Han and all victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Over the course of the Vietnam War, more than 300,000 South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam to fight alongside US and allied forces; up until their departure in 1973, many of these soldiers assaulted, raped and impregnated thousands of Vietnamese women and girls with impunity. The children born to survivors are known as the Lai Dai Han, a pejorative term meaning “mixed blood”; together with their mothers, they have spent decades calling for justice and support.
While the Lai Dai Han and their mothers were not separated like the Yazidis and their children, they have nevertheless faced a lifetime of stigma in Vietnam. Tran Dai Nhat, the son of 80-year-old survivor Tran Thi Ngai and the founder of campaign group Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH), recalls being beaten by teachers, called a “dog” due to his parentage, and cast out from his school as a child. “Teachers hit me—saying I should go back to Korea with my father,” he explained. “My entire life, I have been made to feel as though I shouldn’t be [in Vietnam].”
This discrimination has cast a long shadow. Even today, the Lai Dai Han are forced to live on the margins of Vietnamese society; many are illiterate due having been refused an education, and most have poor access to healthcare and social services. While Vietnamese children born to US soldiers were offered special immigration status by the US administration in 1987, the South Korean government has never acknowledged the existence of the Lai Dai Han, let alone the crimes committed by South Korean troops against their mothers. As Nadia Murad asked at an event calling for justice for the Lai Dai Han, “As these criminals enjoy more rights, freedom and life than the victims themselves, how can we restore dignity to the victims?”
Yazidi women and their children must not be allowed to suffer a similar fate, condemned to a lifetime of stigma and an enduring fight for the justice and recognition they deserve. While the recent reunion between some Yazidi women and their children is welcome news, it is imperative that the international community does more to ensure that the survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and their children are not re-victimized through being cast out by their communities. Without acceptance and affirmation, true healing will be impossible.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or the management of EconoTimes