• Megan Giovannetti | Strategic Communications Officer

Transitional Justice is not a given, it is fought for – and there is power in numbers. When people come together for a collective good, change is made.

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism, let’s shed a spotlight on the courageous survivors of genocide and sexual violence during war time who use their voices to advocate for those who cannot, and who lead the fight for their rights and reparations.

Last October, a number of these courageous women came together for a weekend of learning exchange in the northern Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Hosted by IOM Iraq and the dr Denis Mukwege Foundation, the learning exchange brought members of the Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence (SEMA) together with survivors from the Yazidi, Shabak and Turkmen communities to share experiences, expertise and to learn new skills on leading survivor-first activism.

Members of Iraqi and international survivors networks gathered at the holy Yazidi temple of Lalish to end a weekend of learning with a cultural visit

Sitting on a tall sandstone step at the Lalish temple, the holiest temple for Yazidis, Sarab, 21, is surrounded by fellow Iraqi and international survivors for a day of cultural exchange. She shares what stood out for her during the weekend workshop with the SEMA network.

“At first, I thought there were only Yazidi survivors; but then it turned out that there are many other different peoples with survivors,” said Sarab. “Now we know how to expand our network and how to bring together more survivors.”

Sarab is a member of the Survivors’ Voices Network (SVN) in Iraq. This network aims to ensure meaningful, representative, and unified participation of survivors in the implementation of the “Yazidi Survivors Law,” a reparations law passed in 2021 allowing survivors to apply for compensation in the form of monthly salaries. The law also includes provisions for other forms of reparations, such as plots of land, educational and employment opportunities, opening health and psychological rehabilitation centers, searching for those who remain missing, among other goals.

Sarab, Yazidi survivor and member of the Survivors’ Voices Network

Sarab highlighted a crucial lesson she learned from her fellow activists during the international learning exchange: mental health is key. “They advised us to be comfortable psychologically,” she said. “First, I must deal with myself and how to be good and healthy before helping others.”

Participants of the learning exchange listen to one another speak and share stories about survivor-led activism.

The SVN also brings Yazidi and other minorities survivors together as a safe space to share stories, meet women with similar experiences, and learn how to utilize their voice for the collective good.

Khawla, 27-year-old Yazidi survivor from Kocho, said: “Certainly, I have changed immensely after entering the network and participating in leadership workshops. It brought me out of a circle of fear. Before, I could not advocate for myself. Now, I go and demand my rights and my voice is heard; I speak publicly.”

A Yazidi woman enjoying the temple of Lalish interacts and shares stories with the visiting survivors networks
Khawla, Yazidi survivor and member of the Survivors’ Voices Network

“When [survivors] networks work together,” she continued, “it shows perpetrators that we are not giving up; we are going to work hard to expand the reach of our voices and the places where they should be.”

Sarab and Khawla speaking with SVN and SEMA members during the last day of the weekend retreat, at Lalish mountain.

Tatiana, 40, is the co-founder and national coordinator of the National Movement of Survivors of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a SEMA member. She has been doing activist work since 2004, growing her national network to over 7000 survivors. She believes it wasn’t only the young survivors who learned a great deal from this workshop, but also the seasoned survivor-activists like herself.

Tatiana, Congolese survivor, co-founder and national coordinator of the National Movement of Survivors of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and visiting SEMA member

“This weekend workshop was not only about giving them my experience, but I also learned too much from these young girls,” she said. “My role was to encourage them and to give them what it means to be empowered, to be independent and to decide for themselves.”

“I told myself that they are young, but they are engaged with the cause, and they are able to think. And I believe it is very important to give them more trainings and workshops for them to move forward,” she added.

Tatiana (left) walks with facilitators from the dr Denis Mukwege Foundation during their visit to Lalish

Vasfije, a 41-year-old survivor from Kosovo, is another one of the participants of the workshop. She has been an activist for the past five years, traveling to different countries to spread awareness about sexual violence in conflict. After witnessing the power of survivors’ networks, she hopes to create one for other women from Kosovo.

Vasfije, Albanian Kosovo survivor and visiting SEMA member

“This will be so more survivors can have an open network of support and to share their stories, because most of them are not comfortable with sharing their stories at home,” she said.

 “It does not matter what religion you are, what government you have, or who the war was against. We all understand each other better than someone who did not experience sexual violence.”

Vasfije (left) and a fellow survivor and SEMA member from Kosovo post with a Yazidi woman at a cultural exchange at the Yazidi temple of Lalish

Sitting back with Sarab in the mountainous temple of Lalish at the end of this fruitful weekend, she feels hopeful for the future of Yazidi survivors and the justice they will obtain. “It feels good to have many people around you. It makes you stronger. You feel unified to have people around you,” she said. “Now I feel like something good is going to happen for us because I am seeing all the people around us – it is motivating.”

Learning exchange attendees enjoy the view of the Lalish temple

The dr Denis Mukwege Foundation supports survivors’ networks in more than 10 countries. It was started by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and co-laureate of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad, for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” The dr Denis Mukwege Foundation also assists SEMA, a global network composed of members from 26 countries who share their experiences and fight together against rape as a weapon of war.

Since 2019, IOM has been supporting the empowerment of women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by so-called ISIL to engage in advocacy for their rights and broader transitional justice process. We have been providing different forms of capacity building and direct assistance for their advocacy activities, in partnership with prominent international organization for supporting survivors of CRSV - dr Dennis Mukwege Foundation and local NGOs.

Thanks to the United States Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonweath and Development Office, German Federal Foreign Office and the Netherlands Ministry for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation for their generous support of the Survivors’ Voice Network in Iraq and contributing to this culture and learning exchange workshop.

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