“Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women and children are caught in the middle of this conflict,” says Brita Fernandez Schmidt.
Over the past week, the US-Iran escalation has been exhaustively dissected by analysts and onlookers around the world. It has been framed as a question of geopolitics, economics, international law, and military strategy.
But as the situation continues to unfold, we must not lose sight of the deadly human reality. ISIS is already capitalising on the chaotic situation and diminished coalition presence in Iraq and Syria. And hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women and children are caught in the middle of this conflict.
Iran’s retaliatory attack last week following the Soleimani killing targeted Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where 25% of the population are refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). During a decade of violence and bloodshed across the Middle East, it has become a safe haven for those forced to flee for their lives – opening its doors to 250,000 refugees from Syria, as well as over 1.4m internally displaced Iraqis from areas such as the city of Mosul, which was targeted by ISIS.
After experiencing extreme trauma during war or brutal attack by ISIS, these families sold their possessions to make the dangerous journey to northern Iraq. Some settled in the crowded refugee camps scattered across the region. Others found shelter in Erbil’s abandoned buildings, or the cheapest rented accommodation – often living several families to a room, with no water or electricity.
And the majority are women and children.
These women know what it is like to lie awake in terror, listening for rockets and gunfire. They know how you can lose everything in a second. Last week, they experienced these horrors all over again.
The prospect of ISIS returning to power, as well as the potential outbreak of conflict between the US and Iran, is enough to re-traumatise them about what the future will bring.
Last spring, I visited a camp in Dohuk, close to where one of the Iranian missiles struck last week. There, I met a group of Yezidi women enrolled in a training programme run by Women for Women International. They had fled from Sinjar, where ISIS militants committed a catastrophic genocide in 2014. Men and boys were rounded up and killed, while thousands of Yezidi women were abducted and kept as sex slaves.
I spoke to Layla, a Yezidi woman who managed to escape these atrocities (her name has been changed for security reasons). For five years she has been living in a cramped tent with her mother and five siblings, where Layla, her mother and younger sister share a bed.
She spoke about the daily realities of life in a camp: the lack of privacy, the boredom and loneliness, and the exposure to extreme temperatures. And she told me how difficult it is to get a job, especially if you are a woman with limited education.
Back in Sinjar, Layla’s family were poor and she dropped out of school to work in the fields. Without skills or qualifications, her economic prospects in an IDP camp were vanishingly small. Yet Layla and her family remain trapped, with no home to return to.
During my visit, I heard from my Iraqi colleagues how women like Layla face many other challenges and dangers. Far from home and struggling to make ends meet, displaced women are at high risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. They are often forced into marriage in their early teens due to financial pressures. Domestic violence is prevalent, exacerbated by stress and trauma. And the psychological scars of what they have been through mean that they are reliving their ordeals every day.
Despite this, the women I met had survived against the odds, and managed to build a semblance of stability. After attending a sewing class as part of the Women for Women International programme, Layla started earning a living as a self-employed tailor. She was receiving psychological counselling and had formed strong friendships with other women in her class and the staff at the Women’s Centre, who she said were “like a family”. She had recently purchased a sewing machine and planned to expand her business. Her resilience and courage astounded me.
But as the US-led military coalition halts efforts to combat ISIS, and the region braces for a surge of extremism and militia violence, it is women like Layla who will be hardest hit – and their stories are almost entirely missing from our news bulletins.
I am inspired every day by the Women for Women International team in Iraq, who are committed to providing Iraq’s most vulnerable women with the support and services they desperately need. Our training programme brings together women of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, building trust and closing the gaps that ISIS seeks to manipulate to breed extremist violence. Women develop skills to earn an income and learn about their rights. They have access to psycho-social counselling to overcome trauma. In the midst of the current crisis, our office and training centres remain open, classes are continuing, and we are more committed than ever to expanding into new areas and reaching more women.
The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the true cost of the US-Iran escalation. Iraq’s poorest, most vulnerable women are being rendered collateral damage in this dispute. We must not forget that they are also individuals with hopes and dreams – protagonists in their own lives, now facing a terrifying and uncertain future.
Stylist is the official media partner of Women For Women International. If you’d like to change the life of a woman survivor of war, why not sponsor a sister? A monthly gift of £22 will help your sister learn skills that can change her life. Find out more on the official charity website here.
Images: Women For Women International