The persecution of the Yezidi people by Islamic State (IS) came to symbolise the brutality and violence of the terrorist organisation during their occupation of large parts of Iraq. Their treatment of Yezidi women in particular horrified the world. Earlier this year, on March 1, the Yezidi Survivors Law was ratified after significant revisions to the draft version first introduced by President of Iraq, Barham Salih in March 2019. The bill importantly provides a framework for reparations for many survivors of IS atrocities. However, as Yezidi, Shabak, and Turkmen survivors point out, the challenge now lies in the law’s implementation and in particular ensuring survivors’ access to various reparation initiatives in a timely, confidential, and non-retraumatising way.
The ratified Bill brings several different reparations for Yezidi women who were subjected to sexual violence and children who were abducted by IS before the age of 18. It also grants reparations for female survivors from Christian, Turkmen, and Shabak communities who were enslaved by IS as well as male survivors of mass killings from Yezidi, Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak communities. Mainly, the law provides for a monthly salary, access to medical and mental health services, priority at public employment, a plot of land or housing unit, and the right to education regardless of age.
One important topic the law excludes is addressing the needs of children born out of sexual violence by IS members and their mothers. Additionally, it fails to bring reparations for the members of Kaka’i and Sabean-Mandaean communities who were also violently targeted by IS.
While criticising its shortcomings, Yezidi organisations have praised the passing of the law, and the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict defined the Bill as having “the potential to become the gold standard for future reparation schemes.” With the adoption of the law, Iraq joins a handful of countries – including Kosovo and Croatia – which recognise and provide reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
The law is also a landmark Bill for recognising for the first time in Iraq crimes against Yezidi community as genocide. It declares August 3 as a national day to commemorate the Yezidi Genocide and plans memoralisation practices such as building monuments, statues, and exhibitions. However, this legal acknowledgment in the Bill does not have any implication on the domestic prosecution of IS members with genocide and crimes against humanity because Iraq does not have legislation on these international crimes in its domestic law. Furthermore, the Bill does not recognize genocidal rape as an act which constitutes genocide.
A Directorate General for Female Survivors Affairs has been established under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and a Yezidi woman, Ms. Sarab Elias, has been named as the Head of the Directorate. The Directorate is the government office to receive applications while the reparation claims will be decided by a committee. The committee is granted extended authority, such as the right to adjust the amount of monthly salary beyond the minimum amount specified in the Bill after considering the applicant’s economic and physical vulnerability factors (i.e., disability, number of dependents).
The opening of the Directorate has been an important first step, though there is concern related to the physical location of the Directorate office. It may re-traumatise survivors when visiting the Directorate in Mosul for applications as many of them were taken to Mosul and distributed to IS members in the city. Some Yezidi activists advocate instead for an office in Sinjar. However, the majority of displaced Yezidi survivors of genocide live in and around IDP camps in Duhok in Kurdistan region. The political tensions between the federal government of Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may prevent an effective implementation of the law by limiting applications from survivors in camps who often lack the financial means to travel to Mosul. Similarly, the Turkmen community asks for an office in Tal Afar. The second concern is the allocated budget for the Directorate currently fails to provide it with the necessary staff and equipment to perform its duties and responsibilities under the law.
Another challenge in the implementation of the law is related to the lack of institutional infrastructure, staff, and know-how of the Iraqi government. A survivor-centric approach in implementation requires the government to prevent re-traumatisation and stigma during the application process, to ensure data confidentiality and identity protection, and to provide necessary psychosocial support. Existing services and infrastructure fail to meet the international standards and guidelines when it comes to implementation.
Finally, it is still unclear how Yezidi survivors living in the diaspora will benefit from the law. After the genocide in 2014, countries including Germany, France, Canada, and Australia established asylum quotas for Yezidi women and children survivors and hundreds of survivors were resettled in the West. By mentioning applications from outside of Iraq, the law leaves the door open for the survivors living in the diaspora. The Coalition for Just Reparations, an alliance of Iraqi civil society organisations, recommends the Iraqi government to make the application process as easily accessible as possible for both domestic and international applicants by allowing for online applications, applications through an organisation or third party country.
In the summer of 2018 and 2019, I conducted fieldwork among the displaced Yezidi community in Duhok for my doctoral dissertation research on Yezidi women’s post-genocide resilience and empowerment. I also conducted research among Yezidi communities in Germany in the fall of 2019, and among Yezidis in Lincoln, Nebraska in spring 2021. I conducted interviews with displaced Sinjari Yezidis in Iraqi Kurdistan who are living in and outside of camps, Yezidis from host communities, religious leaders, community activists, doctors, therapists, social workers, NGO representatives, journalists, politicians, and Yezidi refugees and immigrants.
One facet I observed during my research was that the experience of sexual enslavement, as expected, is one of the prominent factors negatively affecting the post-genocide resilience of Yezidi women. Thus, the Bill is especially vital in supporting displaced girl and women survivors of IS captivity who continue to live in camps or in unfinished buildings and lack access to any livelihood and psychosocial support post-genocide. Yet, the same group faces significant challenges in, first of all, learning about the Bill; finding money to travel to make an application; and utilising their rights granted in the reparations Bill. What I also found in my research was that there were many women who did not even know about the services offered to women in their camp. Older women, women who take care of children and the elderly alone, and widowed women can miss out on information as critical as food distributions. As a result, the opening of a Directorate office in Duhok which would serve Yezidis living in and outside of camps is essential for effective implementation. Furthermore, rather than passively waiting for applications, the Directorate should mobilise resources and staff to actively reach out to potential beneficiaries and to make the Bill heard among the community.
Additionally, while aiming to address the immediate needs of survivors of sexual violence, the Bill fails to bring comprehensive reparations for Yezidi women, men, and children who were subjected to several genocidal acts besides sexual violence. This raises the risk for creating “hierarchies of victimhood” which may create tensions both within and between groups and harm women’s collective action around shared gender interests. As mentioned above, widowed women, families with disabled or sick members, female-headed households, families with many children are in dire need for timely livelihood and psychosocial support. Yet, according to the Bill, they are not entitled to reparations unless they are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, IS captivity, or mass killings.
My findings also suggest the limits of the Bill when it comes to education opportunities and economic empowerment for women. First, Yezidi women who received education in Arabic in Sinjar and are displaced in the KRG need to receive formal transcripts from Mosul to be able to continue their education, though they usually refrain from taking the trip. Secondly, government employment opportunities are already limited in Iraq and the KRG and youth unemployment is very high. While cash reparations – if implemented – provide essential support for survivors; for women in Iraq, economic empowerment in terms of their access to decent, income-generating work and full authority on their income, necessitates wider structural reforms in Iraq’s post-war economy as well as transformations in gender roles.
Overall, the Yezidi Female Survivors Law provides groundbreaking reparations framework for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Iraq. This important step should be followed by three main axes of political action. First, to ensure the Bill’s effective implementation, the Directorate should focus on meeting the survivors’ needs for accessing the reparations in a timely, confidential, and non-traumatizing manner. Second, reparations should be extended to all survivors of IS atrocities. This ensures the Iraqi state supports its citizens in distress. This would also eliminate the creation of a victimhood hierarchy and potential tension within and across minority groups, which, in turn, would contribute to reconciliation and atrocity prevention efforts. Finally, the reparations must be accompanied with truth-seeking, and accountability pillars of transitional justice mechanisms which are still yet to take place in post-IS Iraq.
The views expressed in the Near East Policy Forum are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Near East Policy Forum or any of its partner organisations.
About the author
Tutku Ayhan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at Binghamton University. Her research focuses on post-conflict gender dynamics, sexual and gender-based violence, and ethnic conflict. Her book project is based on field research among Yezidi communities in Iraqi Kurdistan, Germany, and the United States, and analyzes Yezidi women's post-genocide resilience and empowerment from an intersectional framework.