OPINION: Mental anguish remains untreated for many Yazidi women

by Lamya Haji Bashar | Aurora Forum
Saturday, 3 August 2019 00:00 GMT

Iraqi Yazidis light candles and paraffin torches during a ceremony to celebrate the Yazidi New Year at Lalish temple in Shekhan District in Duhok province, Iraq April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lamya Haji Bashar is a Yazidi human rights activist and a goodwill ambassador for the Aurora Forum.

As the last remnants of ISIS are being driven out of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, those fortunate enough to have survived the past several years of conflict are beginning to rebuild their lives and communities.

Whilst much of the world’s attention has focused on the geo-political impact of the ISIS caliphate, and the destruction of infrastructure across these regions, what remains overlooked is the rehabilitation of those who were forced to live under this unimaginably brutal regime.

My people, the Yazidis, were prime targets for ISIS due to our ethnicity, religious beliefs and vulnerability as a minority in the Middle East. As has been formally recognised by the United Nations[i], we were victims of a targeted genocide, with thousands of Yazidis massacred. Many of those that weren’t killed, were forcibly exiled.

Having murdered many of our husbands, brothers and sons, ISIS began employing sexual violence against Yazidi women – using rape and enslavement as one of their main weapons against us.

Along with an estimated 7,000 other Yazidi women and children[ii], I was abducted and enslaved. Many of us spent months being sold as property from fighter to fighter, becoming victims of horrific sexual violence on a daily basis.

Unlike so many others, I was eventually able to escape. For those of us who were able to survive enslavement, we are now left to pick up the pieces of our lives, and to try and move forward as best as we can. Whilst our physical scars are there for the world to see, what isn’t as apparent is the psychological and emotional suffering that many of us are left to confront.

Many also struggle with the social stigma that remains attached to their ordeal, meaning they struggle to reintegrate with their communities and even at times, their own families. Asides from the mental anguish, these women can lose their closest relationships and support networks.

A study found that more than 80% of Yazidi sexual enslavement survivors met the criteria for PTSD diagnosis[iii], and that many had experience social rejection from their communities upon returning. In many regions of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, families are extremely conservative and their remains a disturbing stigma around victims of rape.

The same report also highlighted that mental health support for female survivors of the ISIS conflict was urgently needed to prevent life-long suffering[iv]

Prior to the conflict, many of us had ambitions to be mothers, students, workers – to build healthy and prosperous lives for our families. In my home village of Kojo, near Sinjar in Iraq, we have seen our schools, hospitals and businesses be destroyed. For those of us that survived, there is little to return to.

Our suffering didn’t end once we were freed from slavery, and we now lack the infrastructure and resources to help rehabilitate and return to some semblance of happiness and normality. 

To truly rebuild our communities, much investment and funding is needed to provide rehabilitation offerings for survivors – formal counselling that can help us to overcome the emotional trauma we have experienced.

Genuinely impactful psychological treatment for these survivors is expensive – and therefore out of reach for an average Yazidi woman. One of the few rehabilitation schemes available for Yazidi women, ran from Germany[v], costs almost €90 million[vi] per year.

This is a level of investment that isn’t realistic for our communities, and most survivors are unable to travel to Europe to access such schemes. We are in desperate need of support from the international community to develop similar schemes and treatments on-the-ground in Yazidi communities.

We must call on the international community – both governments and NGOs – to prioritise more aid money for mental health support and psychological treatment of Yazidi women. Whilst much great work is being done by government’s through aid, and NGOs through on-the-ground support – greater coordination between both regarding mental health and rehabilitation could be invaluable. 

To rebuild our communities effectively, it is essential that Yazidi women not only survive, but prosper. It is not enough to expect those who have experienced sexual enslavement to simply plaster over their physical wounds and to carry on.

The world is slowly coming to terms with our story, and we need its support if we are to ever move forward.

[i] https://news.un.org/en/audio/2016/06/614292

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/09/yazidis-isis-only-bones-remain-fear-returning-home

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6136186/

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6136186/

[v] https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2016/01/world-forgot-us-inside-scheme-rehabilitate-yazidi-sex-slaves-who-have

[vi] https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2016/01/world-forgot-us-inside-scheme-rehabilitate-yazidi-sex-slaves-who-have