After congratulating the 2022 Nobel peace laureates you said winning the prize can open doors, but it does not remove all obstacles. What doors opened for you after receiving the Nobel peace prize in 2018? And what is the greatest obstacle you face?
A lot of people stop to listen when you win a Nobel. For me, the prize opened doors to many wonderful partners around the world who are supporting the Yazidi cause and the work to end sexual violence. When I first heard I was receiving the Nobel, I was afraid that everyone would then expect me to be able to solve the crisis on my own, but in reality, it helped me build a larger community of allies.
Today, our greatest obstacle is keeping the world’s attention. With so many global issues, leaders have competing priorities. There is generally a short attention span for violence against minorities like mine. But without international support, Yazidi recovery is not possible. It has been crucial for me to remind the international community that this fight is not just about Yazidis, it is about upholding human rights, women’s rights, and preventing atrocities globally.
Your cause at Nadia’s Initiative is preventing conflict-related sexual violence, supporting survivors and rebuilding communities in crisis. What would you most like people to know about your work?
The cornerstone of Nadia’s Initiative is building solutions that are 1) community-led and 2) sustainable. Communities affected by crisis know best what they need to rebuild, and it is so important to listen to survivors of sexual violence about their path to healing and how to protect women in the future. That is why Nadia’s Initiative partners directly with communities and survivors to design and implement peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts.
These local partnerships also make recovery efforts more sustainable. We are working to meet the community’s immediate needs but also build infrastructure and services that will facilitate safe and dignified lives for future generations.
By your own account, 7 years after the genocide began, the Yazidi community’s struggle for survival is still largely ignored. There have been no multilateral search and rescue efforts for missing women and children. About 80 mass graves lie unexhumed around Sinjar where ISIS carried out its genocide. No Iraqi national or international court has established proceedings to try ISIS criminals for genocide and sexual violence. The numbers are huge: 200,000 displaced people; 2,800 women and children missing; 150,000 returned but with few resources. Given these daunting facts, what motivates you day to day?
It can definitely be discouraging because lives hang in the balance of decisions that are made or ignored at the highest levels. But when the community’s survival is at stake, there is not really a choice. Yazidis are strong and resilient people. They are carrying on, trying to restart their lives. That is the core motivator of Nadia’s Initiative’s work. We will keep working next to them because the community should not have to recover on its own.
Would you share a success story here that makes you proud?
I am really proud of our projects on the ground in Sinjar. Our landmark initiative was to build a brand-new hospital in the region. This was one of the first ideas I had when I started Nadia’s Initiative, and it is really rewarding to see it finally take off. The hospital will significantly expand access to quality healthcare.
When I visited Sinjar in early October, I saw children returning to the schools that we restored and met women running their own businesses and farms with the support of Nadia’s Initiative’s livelihoods programs. It is incredible to see how the Initiative’s projects have impacted individuals and strengthened the community long-term.
Just over a year ago you wrote that most Yazidis are internally displaced within Iraq, mere hours away from their homes but without the resources to rebuild them. What needs to happen?
Truthfully, there is no easy solution to displacement, but I will say that facilitating safe paths home to Sinjar is the most sustainable solution. Life in camps is without hope, resettlement abroad is unlikely, but return home is within reach. Over a 100,000 Yazidis have already returned to Sinjar and are rebuilding their lives, but they need long-term support to holistically restore and guarantee safety and stability in the region.
I often ask people to think about the fact that the genocide has been going on for over eight years. Recovering from that level of violence requires substantial efforts, and we need to do much more. The international community prioritizes security over development, but security is actually dependent on development. Leaders must stabilize Iraq by investing in sustainable reconstruction. Otherwise, they are just sending Yazidis to a destabilized region where they are vulnerable to violence and discrimination once again.
A Nobel Women’s Initiative focus for the 16 days campaign is on peace advocacy as a pathway to reduce gender-based violence. Your thoughts?
Conflict undoubtedly deteriorates women’s rights, but women are not safe from violence in peacetime. Sexual violence does not begin or end when conflict does. So, when we advocate for peace, I think it is crucial to demand justice and equity – not just the absence of conflict. This means addressing the root causes that make women vulnerable—systems of poverty and patriarchy—and empowering women to participate in peacebuilding and development.
You discovered in the worst way possible that sexual violence is a weapon of war. Is this fact recognized well enough at the UN, the International Criminal Court and other institutions? Where is work needed?
Over the past few years, I have partnered with organizations and governments to strengthen mechanisms for ending sexual violence. As an example, I advocated for the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 2467 which expands commitments to end sexual violence in conflict with a survivor-centric approach. In recent years, the European Council strengthened the Brussels Declaration with similar goals.
The challenge ahead lies in prioritization and implementation. Despite recognition of sexual violence as a weapon of war, the international community has not taken steps to proactively prevent sexual violence or create action plans for responding to it in real time. As a result, we are seeing sexual violence continue to be weaponized, such as in recent crises in Tigray and Ukraine.
Holding perpetrators accountable is also an important step in preventing sexual violence. But even in the case of ISIS members, national courts are prioritizing convictions for terrorism while very few have prosecuted for sexual violence specifically.
Amid all of these concerns, we cannot lose sight of the importance of supporting survivors. Reparations are a crucial mechanism for empowering support. But here too, prioritization and implementation are barriers.
One of your missions is to get formal recognition by governments of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis in Iraq that begin in August 2014. How does recognition help?
Recognition is important for healing because it formally acknowledges the violation of Yazidi rights. Yazidis have experienced a long history of persecution, which has been repeatedly ignored and denied. Government recognition sets the story straight and is the first step toward meaningful support. Acknowledging these atrocities activates the national and international responsibility to support justice and accountability.
Nadia’s Initiative is building a hospital, schools, libraries, and other infrastructure in Sinjar. You refer to this as interim reparations. Does this mean government reparations are not forthcoming?
The Iraqi government passed the Yazidi Female Survivors Law, which recognizes survivors' right to reparations and defines a loose framework for government provision. The government has set up a directorate for survivors’ affairs, however, implementation has been slow especially since full funding has not yet been allocated. Survivors should not have to wait for support, eight years is already far too long. Reparations support individuals as they reclaim control of their futures. But the waiting time equals trauma for survivors. So, I’m thrilled that Nadia’s Initiative and the Global Survivors fund have been able to step in with interim measures.
What does peacebuilding look like on the ground in the Sinjar region?
There is still active conflict in Sinjar between militia groups who are competing for control. Yazidis’ priorities for the region are to have meaningful representation through a Yazidi governor and Yazidi participation in local security forces. Yazidi voices need to be heard.
Have you ever received advice that resonates now?
We don’t get anywhere by pacifying with politeness.
I have always been encouraged to speak truthfully. Whether I’m speaking to potential partners or international leaders, I do not shy away from discussing harsh realities. Speaking with policy makers, I try to develop a personal connection of rapport, but I do not hold back when leaders fall short of their obligations to protect human rights.
What advice would you share with other activists around the world?
Fight to make your vision of tomorrow a reality today. And, along the way, surround yourself with people who bring you joy.
Nadia Murad was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. An Iraqi Yazidi, she established the NGO Nadia’s Initiative.
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ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.