In early October 25-year old Yazidi girl Nadia Murad won the Nobel Peace Prize for raising awareness of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. She did so by bravely speaking up about how she was held as a sex slave and raped countless times by members of terrorist group ISIS.
The Rwanga refugee camp on the dusty hills in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is full of girls just like Murad. It’s home to almost 3000 Yazidi refugee families and while not every girl here suffered sexual violence, all had to flee for their lives when ISIS attacked their hometown in August 2014.
Today, in a large stuffy room on one corner of the camp, a group of young girls are gathered, chatting excitedly. They are here to take part in Boxing Sisters, a revolutionary new scheme launched this month by Lotus Flower, a charity which works with women and girls affected by conflict. The young girls have ditched their traditional dress and headscarves in favour of training gear and leather boxing gloves and are limbering up for a fight.
“Boxing is not only just a great physical activity, it’s also really good for mental health,” says Taban Shoresh, Lotus Flower founder. “These girls all have very traumatic stories to tell. It’s an opportunity to channel their emotions.”
Amongst the dozen or so girls turning up for training today is petite 22-year-old Fairooz who hid up in the mountains with no food or water when ISIS came. Also, there’s Nadia, a 17-year old Yazidi orphan with braids and big smile who has lived on the camp for four years, as well as 15-year old Sohela who witnessed her grandmother die as they all ran for their lives.
And there are many more tales of unimaginable atrocities amongst the girls on the camp. There is one girl Zina who tells us ISIS came when she was just 14 years old and took her and her sister into captivity. When her sister refused to perform the sexual acts required they burned her and threw her dead body in the street. ‘Then they sold me on to four different men who all raped me violently,’ says Zina, ‘They laughed at me and told me I was nothing but a sex slave. They drugged me so I couldn’t defend myself and they tortured me for a month when I tried to escape. I was captive for three years and in that time had no contact at all with my family.’
The same stories emerge over and over again. Of how ISIS came to their villages in 2014, rounded everyone up and separated the men from the girls and the women. The girls were ‘tested’ for their virginity and the ones still intact - some as young as 9 or 10 - were sold into sexual slavery. Here they were kept in locked rooms and one who tells us she was kept tied to the floor as the men raped them mercilessly. Many tried to escape and many attempted to kill themselves. ‘I jumped off a large building,’ says 18-year old Faiza, ‘but I survived. I smashed my head and broke my arm in three places.’
It’s no wonder the girls are relishing the cathartic release of a bout in the ring.
“I love the way boxing relaxes my mind. Afterwards I always go home with a clear mind,” says Fairooz, wiping the sweat from her brow. “I also feel that if we are well trained, if anything happens to us again, we can fight back and defend ourselves. Isis came with guns so there was little we could do, but in the future the situation may be different.”
Lotus Flower is serious in its intent. As the girls carefully wrap cloth round their knuckles and pull on protective head gear, it’s clear this isn’t just a boxercise class. Shoresh has enlisted former pro British boxer Cathy Brown who runs Boxology, an academy which trains boxing coaches. The idea is that Brown will visit the camp and teach the girls to become boxing trainers themselves.
Currently they are lining up Nadia to be the first female Yazidi boxing coach. She is a natural who fights with a glint in her eye and a ferocious intensity. “I love the way boxing keeps my body strong,” she says, “I would love to take it further and learn to become a coach.”
If funding allows, Shoresh has plans to roll the scheme out to other refugee camps. If this happens it could see Nadia, once she’s trained up, travelling round the region earning money as a coach - something which may one day earn her a ticket off the camp.
When Murad received her Nobel prize she declared, “I share this award with all Yazidis, all the Iraqis, Kurds and the minorities and all survivors of sexual violence around the world.” The Yazidis are a religious community numbering only 400,000 people and it is estimated that around 3000 of them were sold into sex slavery in an ISIS campaign that is now being described as genocide. Every single one of them has felt the impact.
“If you look into the eyes of some of these girls when they are hitting each other you sometimes see something else,” concludes Vian Ahmed, Lotus Flower regional manager. “It’s like they are imagining an ISIS member in front of them and they are getting revenge. They are different from other boxers. They have something that is pushing them to fight.”
Some names have been changed
Visit www.thelotusflower.org/donateboxingsister to help fund the Boxing Sisters.