Baroness Nicholson: To end sexual violence in war, we must focus on its root causes

Posted On: 
14th January 2019

We must ensure religion can never be used as an excuse for murderous violence ever again, writes Baroness Nicholson

A Yazidi woman with her child in a makeshift camp near Sinjar
Credit: 
PA

Watching the inspirational Nadia Murad step up to collect her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last month, I found myself drifting back to our first meeting, in a Baghdad hotel almost three years ago.

We sat together with two other young Yazidi girls in the garden, mercifully shaded from the blazing sun by a canopy of date palms. Just a few weeks before, Nadia, Baha and Maha had been prisoners of the vile Islamic State before making dramatic and dangerous escapes.

I will never forget the stories they told me that afternoon. They shocked me like nothing else ever had. Over the years, I have witnessed horrific violence in trouble spots around the world and I’ve been told the most dreadful things about man’s inhumanity to man, but the treatment metered out to these slight, sweet young girls by the monsters of ISIS was sickening.

This was barbarism on a massive scale. The girls and their families were snatched from their homes or torn from their cars as they tried to escape. Most of the men – fathers, brothers, sons – were shot and killed on the spot, right in front of their womenfolk.

The girls were then separated and “filtered” into different groups depending on age, looks or both. The prettiest girls were destined to go to the highest-ranked ISIS members – self-styled Emirs, who were often in their late 50s or 60s.

But first they were transported to the bigger towns on buses, ready to be sold on like cattle to the highest bidder. The sexual violence began almost immediately they climbed on board the coaches. The guards took the opportunity to grab the girl’s breasts, legs, anything they could get hold of. Age was no barrier. Nadia witnessed girls as young as nine being groped and slapped despite their screams and tears.

So terrified were the girls when they reached the “distribution” points – school halls and the like – that many were vomiting and some lost control of their bowels. Just imagine their terror.

Within weeks the majority had been sold as sex slaves, to satisfy the perverse desires of men who knew no mercy.

If the girls refused their demands for sex, they were beaten – some died from their injuries. Many like Nadia, Baha and Maha were raped and abused on a daily basis by multiple men. This sexual violence was as much a weapon of war as the bombs, the guns and the knives.

The profound social and psychological effects of this will be long-lasting. ISIS may have been pushed back in Iraq, but they have left tens of thousands of women, physically and emotionally scarred.

Nadia and other campaigners are doing magnificent work in keeping the Yazidi issue in the headlines, but the only way to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, globally, is if there is the political will at the highest levels of international government.

When the House of Lords’ committee I chaired published our report into the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we distinguished clearly between support for the survivors and the making of policies to stop this ever happening again.

We agreed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should take the lead on PSVI and should persuade other governments to support it, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

When I spoke at a recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, the members instantly grasped the vital importance of PSVI, and implored us to speak directly to their governments and garner their support.

So much has been happening and we have momentum behind us. We brought this to the world’s attention effectively, deliberately and very correctly. Now we must take the next steps.

We must focus on the deep causes of what is effectively genocide or attempted genocide, however you define it. From listening to witness testimonies from victims like Nadia Murad, who spoke so movingly to our ad-hoc committee on PSVI, we discovered that in many, if not all instances, religious persecution was one of the main excuses for this violence.

Taking the Yazidi cause as an example, and with huge input from the Bishops’ Bench and in particular the former Bishop of Derby – now the Archbishop of Canterbury’s international faith advisor – Dr Alastair Redfern, we have nailed down the theological misinterpretation of the Yazidi faith by groups such as ISIS.

Many times over the last few years in her speeches, Nadia Murad has asked the question, why? Why were Yazidis targeted? Why did Muslim men believe it was perfectly alright to kidnap, rape, and torture Yazidi women?

We know the answer of course because ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi told us. It was a Muslim’s duty to attack non-Muslims.

So our goal must be to ensure that the odious Baghdadi’s message is completely debunked. So that giving this phoney dispensation for committing these unspeakable acts on religious grounds can never be used as an excuse for murderous violence ever again.

Baroness Nicholson is a Conservative peer and former chair of the Sexual Violence in Conflict Committee