Serri (Sura) Mahmood: ex-equo award winner


CERAH acknowledges an outstanding dissertation submitted by Ms Serri (Sura) Mahmood for her Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Action (class 2016-17). Together with Ms Yessica Ramirez Mendoza she has been ex-equo awarded the Swiss Humanitarian Award for her dissertation:

“Challenges of Chrildren Born by ISIS Rape in Iraq.”

(click here to read the dissertation online)

Both dissertations have been selected for the originality and modernity of the subjects as well as for the high quality of the written text. We seize the opportunity to thank our longstanding partner Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) for granting this award.

Serri (Sura) you have been ex-equo awarded the “Swiss Humanitarian Award” for this year’s best Master’s dissertation. What is your first reaction?

Firstly, I have a vivid memory of people warning me not to write about this topic because I would put myself at risk. This risk highlights the current breakdown in Iraqi societal institutions and the large humanitarian need that exists. I felt it was my duty to promote awareness of this issue and mobilize humanitarian efforts to neutralize the risk that all citizens feel. Defending the rights of a child fathered by a terrorist is a very controversial topic in my country, Iraq. The society is trying to heal from the traumas of almost four years of war. Suffering has become a normal daily reality and people are desensitized to violence. People have forgotten a time when every human life mattered and every citizen’s circumstance was taken into serious consideration. My second thought is about Safia (the women in the case-study.) I wish I had the opportunity to hug this woman at the moment I received the news of my award.  This dissertation is a reflection of her courage to pursue the same basic human rights, liberties, and protections that all members of the international community seek. 

The number of children born by ISIS Rape in Iraq is outraging by itself. In addition to physical and psychological trauma, the victims and their children are to face legal and social consequences in Iraq. Can you outline the issue?

Women and their children born as a result of rape are not recognized as victims and forced into a societal shame. The implications for the children are the lack of basic rights of citizenship because not all ISIS fighters are Iraqi citizens, and even if the father is Iraqi, the mother needs to prove the identity of the father. These children and women are forced to live on the fringes of society that causes an isolation of basic rights to health, education, and economic security. They are labelled a disgrace to their tribes, and considered “children of the terror” and suffer systematic discrimination that violates the rights the Convention of Rights of the Child (CRC). The implication for women is the loss of honour despite violent nature of the circumstance. A women’s loss of virginity due to rape causes her to be branded as sinner and considered a dishonourable woman unfit to marry regardless of the non-consensual manner of her circumstance. Many women try to hide the incident of rape from their own families out of fear they will be stigmatized or punished by their relatives or community.

The large number of “war-rape orphans” has caused a new reality for Iraqi society and cannot be ignored. What can be done by Iraqi State and by (int.) humanitarian networks to integrate these children back into society?

There are two key actions that humanitarian networks can impact. Firstly, NGOs can help generate political will at the top of Iraqi society by pressuring the national leaders and political elite to adhere to Iraqi’s contractual legal obligations to the international treaties, norms, and standards to which the country is a party to.

The national government leaders must respect, ensure, and fulfil the rights of the babies born by rape and their mothers. Establishing a national political will can create momentum at local levels. Secondly, NGOs can create a coordinated strategy with tribal leaders and grassroots efforts to engage in a robust dialogue and generate creative solutions that are organic to Iraqi society. NGOs need to tap into the right knowledge base of Iraqi cultural, ethic, and religious norms and establishing close working relationships with civil society leaders whom can offer practical solutions.

Is the sensitivity of the topic and its complexity the reason this issue is largely uncovered by humanitarian practitioners?

Most women and children living in small-scale projects or vulnerable populations do not receive the desperately needed attention from humanitarian groups because they do not represent an issue as popular as those of the larger-scale projects. This represents an unspoken stigma (re)produced by INGOs because the small-scale projects (such as assistance for victims of rape and their children) do not produce the international allure that will motivate donors to support the issue. In short, it is not a ‘sexy’ issue in comparison to the larger, more generalized affected population in humanitarian emergencies. The current trends of social activism and humanitarian operations are focused on issues like feeding hungry children or stopping the trafficking of children and sexual slavery. Those topics are easily defined and have clear strategies to implement the designed projects, unlike the complex issues entrenched in the issue of children born as a result of rape. In addition, emergency organizations are apprehensive to design projects that serve the needs of children born as a result of rape because at the core of this issue are political implications that touch upon the identity of Iraqi citizenry. International organizations most likely do not want to be perceived as challenging the sovereignty of a nation state’s domestic constitutional policies. However, United Nations and Human Rights Organizations have a legal responsibility to intervene and hold the government of Iraq accountable to the international treaties that have been ratified by the government. 

Is there hope?

Some women know that if they keep their child who born out of rape, they will lose the opportunity to be with their family. Therefore, this existing baby is often the new family the woman creates. Safia explained, “My baby girl is the only reason why I am alive; therefore, I will fight to protect her life; she gave me hope and protected my life when she was only a soul in my womb.”

Despite the daily struggles and death threats to Safia’s life, she continues to try to meet her baby’s basic needs. The love a mother feels for her child is a source of hope and healing from the horrors of war. The love between a mother and child minimizes the brutalities of war, in an environment filled with danger, hopelessness, and ugliness. If the environment can be changed and society embraces victims with the support and mechanisms they need to heal, the women have a real and honest opportunity to build a life again. This can only be achieved if the national leadership establishes policies and accountability at the local levels of society. 

Thank you Serri (Sura) for this interview.

More about the laureate:

Serri (Sura)Ms. Serri (Sura) Mahmood holds a Master's Degree in humanitarian Action. Her academic credentials and portfolio of skills offers a blend of program management experience in the economic and business sectors, and Non-Governmental Organizations advocating for the rights of women and children. She completed extensive training in Gender Discrimination & Violence, Capacity Building, Global Women in Management, and Communications. Ms. Mahmood serves on the board of directors for Baghdad Women Association, as well as a member of Ahalna and Al-Amal Associations.