The UN Security Council met this week as chilling reports emerge of rape and sexual violence being used against women and children during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of the speakers was Nobel Laureate and justice campaigner Nadia Murad, who recently launched the Murad Code, a global code of conduct focused on gathering information about conflict-based sexual violence.
Raised in the ancient faith and traditions of the Yazidi people, Murad grew up the youngest of 11 children in Kocho, Iraq. She enjoyed history at school, loved playing with makeup, and dreamed of opening a hair salon one day. Instead, in 2014, her hometown was captured by the Islamic State. Fourteen members of Murad’s family, including her beloved mother, were among the hundreds of citizens who were massacred. Two of her brothers were wounded but managed to pull themselves out of the mass graves ISIS dug for their victims. Murad and the other women and girls of Kocho were abducted and held as sex slaves. She endured months of captivity before she escaped and found refuge in Germany. Since then, she has dedicated herself to securing justice for the Yazidi people, rebuilding what ISIS destroyed, and protecting other women and children against the use of rape as a weapon of war.
During our recent conversation, she told me that the international community must develop an urgent plan to respond to the sexual violence in Ukraine, and why victims need justice. “I know when I tell my story and start talking about these issues, this will not bring back my mother,” she said. “But I and other survivors do this because we want to prevent this from happening to others, and we want accountability. That’s the number one concern of many survivors, when their stories are being told: they are hoping that their message will be used for justice.”
I began by asking her what her main focus and goals are.
NM: It is my belief as a survivor that we cannot separate accountability from prevention. If we do not hold those who have committed these crimes accountable it will not prevent this from happening to other women.
AJ: I could not agree more. That there has been such a lack of accountability for these crimes that has really emboldened people to behave this way, and not consider it a crime of war.
NM: For the first time, Germany has used universal jurisdiction to go after ISIS members. I do not understand why other EU members, the U.S., and others cannot follow that example. We have the evidence, we have the testimonies, we can hold them accountable. All we need is to follow that direction.
AJ: It’s so clear how important it is to take all we now know, and to start to implement it as a new standard of practice. With Ukraine, what do you hope governments are doing at this time that might help with accountability?
NM: When ISIS attacked in their war against the Yazidis for example, they had a systematic plan to use sexual violence and rape and to violate women. But unfortunately when the international coalition was formed to defeat ISIS, they made the mistake of not considering specifically that violence against women was a main element of this war. Violence against women and sexual violence in particular in conflict zones is considered a side effect, collateral damage of these conflicts. In Ukraine, the key when world leaders talk about this, and for all of us, is trying to make that a main part of the plan to help the Ukrainian people. World leaders need to understand that whether it’s in Yemen or Ukraine or any other place, violence against women will occur and we should make sure that we have that in mind when planning to deal with these conflicts.
AJ: I think many people don’t fully understand when they hear about this violence. Somehow they still associate rape with a sexual act, or they don’t completely understand the horrors. They don’t often know that it’s rape in front of a child, or rape of a child, or rape until the woman is dead. There is evidence that it is done to intentionally destroy the human being, the family, the community. If it’s not too much to ask, and not insensitive, could you help those who don’t understand what it really is and why it is a weapon?
NM: Eleven of my sisters-in-law were captured by ISIS and taken into slavery. Some of them were my age, others were older, and some of them experienced this violence in front of their children, because their children were also taken into captivity with them. It was done in a visible way to destroy the family, destroy the woman, destroy the community. It wasn’t done in secret, it was done publicly.
One thing I have been trying to do in my advocacy is explain to people in Iraq with whom I interact, [that] terrorist groups in the case of ISIS and others specifically focus on women to destroy communities because they know women are an essential part of their fabric.
Terrorist groups use rape as a way to destroy women because they know that this can stay with women. They know that the stigma and the shame in many communities follow a woman after sexual slavery and rape. This is exactly what ISIS did. It was not an accident. This was a systematic plan. ISIS intentionally wanted women to have children born of rape when they bought and sold them in sexual slavery. Because they knew for a small community like the Yazidis it would be difficult for the community to recover.
For my family these days, when I see my sisters-in-law after what they have been through, nothing is the same for us.. When we talk there is nothing for us to talk about as a normal family anymore. We look at each other, I know they don’t want to talk about their stories of course, some of them never have. But I know when I look into their eyes there is so much they want to talk about but they don’t.
AJ: For victims, for example in your home community, are there people working with the children of rape, or with those families to try and help them through in a therapeutic way?
NM: Yes, there are initiatives and groups that are helping. But there is no coordinated effort to try and find a holistic solution and focus on helping the women and children not divert the focus to other things.
AJ: So much comes down just to the rights of a woman or a child. And of course, when there is no accountability for the crime committed against you, it is a big thing to ask that victim to move forward. It’s grossly unfair, it’s impossible. I have so much admiration for all the women like you who have somehow—with so much grace—held together and continued to do this work, in the absence of justice. I cannot imagine how hard it must be when you and your sisters-in-law and family members come together and sit with the reality of this.
NM: This is exactly it. Many times when my sisters and sisters-in-law talk to me they say, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ They know after what happened to them and to me and to our family, and they see that it comes with so many difficulties to speak up about what happened to you, especially coming from that region. It comes with shame and stigma and attacks and so forth. But someone has to say what happened to us. I know it’s the right thing to do because I know I will not be the last one to face this type of violence. So that’s why I have to. I know it’s going to take a long time but I know it’s the right thing to do.
AJ: I think you’re very brave, and your work is so significant, and you will continue to save other women and children. I know you have wonderful brothers who stood up for you, and I know my sons are like that in my life. So many amazing men and boys around the world are fighting against those men who commit those crimes, like your wonderful husband.
NM: I’m going to say a few things about my husband and my brothers because I feel I need to. When I told my brothers, the ones that survived the mass graves in the camps, because 60 Minutes wanted to interview us together, the guy told me that if you do this interview the whole world will see you and listen to your story. I tried to convince my brothers and they were like ‘You know we love you. We don’t want you to face stigma and shame.’ But they supported me in the end and they came with me all the way from the camps to Irbil and they did the interview and they were proud.
And after I was doing this work, I knew I needed someone to support me, not just to work with me as a survivor but to love me, to respect me. When someone comes and asks me where and when were ISIS raping you, to tell them that this question should not be asked, she is a human, she is a survivor not a victim anymore. I found that in Abid, my husband. He listened to me. I don’t think I could have done it without him. I hope that men in Iraq can look at Abid and see that he is supporting me and supporting this work and he is so passionate about what happened to women and girls, and not only Yazidis. I think we need more men and there are so many good men in the world who can support us.
When I founded Nadia’s Initiative, I just wanted to focus on documenting what happened to us and especially survivors’ stories and what ISIS did. I didn’t want to be the one to rebuild the region because it was not my responsibility as a survivor. But after surviving and living in that displacement camp I learnt much more. I knew that being raped was one thing but living in a displacement camp is another whole experience, especially for women and girls. Everything I am doing for Nadia’s Initiative came from my experience, from witnessing everything in the displacement camp, in captivity back home and even before ISIS came. It takes time to do projects to document the evidence, but even with challenges we can use them to prevent what happened to us from happening to others.
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