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20 March 2017

Blog interview with Sybille Fezer: “A lack of prospects leads to a high level of violence against women and children.”

The blogger Katharina Lotter wanted to learn more about rape as a weapon of war and to know what long-term help for women in northern Iraq could look like, so she interviewed Sybille Fezer, Managing Director of medica mondiale.

Support for women locally or in the West?

Ms Fezer, here in Germany when discussing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq during the past year we often heard an urgent demand: “Get the people out of there and bring them here to the West, especially the women and children. Here they will be safe and we have the resources to help them.” What needs to be said about this demand?

It cannot be implemented and it is also not necessarily the right path to take. We believe there is a fundamental principle that needs to be obeyed: Every woman has to be able to decide for herself what is important for her healing process. You cannot just decide to ‘get her out’ and take her somewhere else. For us, self-determination is important, as is the principle that responsibility is assumed within the women’s own social environment. This is why we are critical of that approach.

Why?

In all countries where we work we have experienced how the social environment of the women has to accept and recognise the women’s suffering and the war crimes that were committed on them. If women are isolated from their social surroundings by bringing them here, then they miss out on this healing psychosocial effect. They find themselves in a foreign country with a completely different culture and a language they don’t speak. Their residence status is unclear. At first they cannot work here. They want to help their family members but these are far away so they cannot and they will be worrying about them. All of this has a negative impact on their own stabilisation. Furthermore, the crimes need to be recognised and processed in the countries where they took place. Another aspect is the risk of according special privileges to specific groups: Why help the Yezidi women but not the Sunni Arab women in northern Iraq who have been raped by the IS and Shiite militia? Why them and not the women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been experiencing rape for decades? I do not think this issue has a real answer: there is no way to decide where to draw the line. I believe that approaches which have their empowering impact locally – and that can only happen with local people – have a better impact in the long term.

The women's movement in northern Iraq

So how has medica mondiale organised its work in northern Iraq?

We have a small office there. A Kurdish colleague coordinates and organises our work in the region. Then there is a book-keeper and a driver. Other than that, as in many other countries, too, the work is carried out together with local women’s organisations. In northern Iraq we also support training for governmental healthcare professionals who work with women who were raped. In the Kurdish part of northern Iraq there has been an active women's movement for several decades which has been campaigning for better laws to protect women. So there are already governmental structures in place for women which we generally did not find in our other project countries.

Is this an exception?

Yes, this is a special situation. In Kurdish northern Iraq there is a political will to do something for women. This is not always the case. The police there have their own contact points for women affected by violence. In Dohuk there is the Survivor Center, a field office of the local hospital, and a women’s protection house. We support these institutions by offering further training and, for the women’s house, equipment. The Survivor Center was our first access to survivors of sexualised violence in northern Iraq. It was set up by female psychologists and doctors from the health authorities of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, mainly for women who had fled from the so-called IS. Via the Berlin organisation Haukari, which works in Sulaymaniyah, we also provide support directly to women and girls in the refugee camps on the Iraq-Iran border. These are camps which receive almost no attention from the international community.

Violence against women in northern Iraq

Is violence against women in northern Iraq mainly a problem now because of the IS?

No. Although the Survivor Center was set up primarily to deal with women who experienced violence from the terrorist militia, the police contact points mainly deal with women who experience violence in their domestic environment. Despite progressive laws and the achievements of the women's movement in Kurdish northern Iraq, the society there is still very patriarchal with women treated as inferior and enjoying fewer rights. We should not forget that the whole region has seen high levels of violence for decades. Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds, there was the war between Iraq and Iran, and there was armed conflict between political parties in the region. Women turning to the counselling centres have very often experienced multiple, repeated traumatisation: life-long discrimination, rape, massacres, internal displacement, flight, and bombings. They have lost husbands and children, their houses were destroyed and they were forced into sexual slavery. The media in the West has paid most attention to their suffering at the hands of the so-called Islamic State, but this ignores many other experiences of violence. And these continue in the refugee camps. The lack of prospects for people there leads to a high level of violence against women and children. For example, young girls are married off at an early age so the family does not have to look after them financially.

Wartime rape

Why does rape and other violence against women play such a major role in times of war?

There are many theories about this. In the end, it is always about power. Within a family, violence makes it clear who is in charge. In the case of wartime rape, carrying out physical violence against females sends a clear message to the enemy: you are incapable of protecting your women. Women are often seen as inferior, even in times of peace. The honour of the family is linked to the woman. And the woman is seen as the personal property of the man. This sexism paves the way for this type of violence and means it often escalates: ownership and honour are breached, revenge is sought, and this revenge also then has the women of the enemy as its target. This is how structural violence is magnified in times of war. Women become an object used to send the enemy a message.

So wartime rape is not just a coincidence? The rapes are more than just an evil sideshow?

That is correct – wartime rape should not be seen as a ‘side-effect’ or coincidence. Sexualised violence is used systematically and is an act of war. One issue is the destruction of the female body and the ability of the opponent to reproduce. Or the women are deliberately made pregnant so they have to give birth to the children of their enemy. Both strategies serve to destroy the “enemy society” in the long term. These events have their impact long after the war has ended, as traumatised women bring up their children and grandchildren – with all of them suffering discrimination because they are ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’.

Supporting women

What do women need if they are to deal with these experiences?

The most important things for the women are to have their safety and security intact again and to receive help building up their feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Many have been in captivity for months. So we make less use of clinical therapeutic approaches, preferring psychosocial work – i.e. combining psychological and social measures. The promotion of solidarity and social connection is very, very important for the women’s stability. Our longitudinal study in Bosnia and Herzegovina has confirmed this: women need surroundings without discrimination, where they are accepted and recognised and where they can speak about what happened to them. The study shows that where this is the case, women develop far fewer chronic symptoms. This is why our local colleagues join forces with the doctors, psychologists and hospital personnel who we have trained to pay great attention to the social surroundings, integrating these into the healing process.

You can read the original interview in its entirety here (in German): Blog Salonkolumnisten.