By Maggie Jeffries —

Through Women Thrive’s Achieve SDG5 initiative we work with our Alliance members toward achieving gender equality, yet we recognize that full gender equality cannot be achieved if Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees are left out of the framework. The work that Women Thrive Alliance members are doing is centered around gender equality and achieving SDG5 (on gender equality), and this is no different for our members who are focused on refugees and IDPs. The targets of SDG5 are just as relevant to women who are refugees or IDPs, if not more so. Despite this fact, in none of the 169 targets of the 17 goals are refugees or IDPs mentioned.

“Our women’s center is designed to improve the lives of women because that matters, and if there are other benefits to society, then that is great, but women having better lives is its own goal.” These are the words of Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of our newest members to the Alliance, Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), based in Kurdistan in the Northern region of Iraq. FYF focuses their work on improving women’s livelihoods and providing education to children who are IDPs, within the organization’s larger goal of supporting the Yezidi population in that region.

The Yezidis are an ethnic group within Kurdistan who have been historically marginalized because their religion is different than others in the region. Three years ago, in August of 2014, the Yezidi population came under attack by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and thousands were killed. Pari Ibrahim, a Yezidi woman whose family fled the region twenty years earlier to resettle in the Netherlands, founded FYF in 2014 in direct reaction to the 3 August 2014 attack. 

The organization has established a women and children’s community center and they plan to expand the centers throughout the IDP camps in Northern Iraq. The center focuses on bringing essential services, education, and community to the Yezdis. Many of the women in these camps had been taken and held by ISIS and raped – in some cases, systematically for up to a year – others lost their homes and family members. The community center is a safe space for the women to come and share their experiences and get access to therapeutic, educational, and livelihood services and activities. For Pari and FYF this safe space is essential.

Safe spaces are essential and creating change and therapeutic growth for women who have faced adversity are central concerns for the feminist movement. For Pari, the work that they do is feminist because women’s welfare and well-being are not tools of their work but rather, the goals. According to Pari, “The Free Yezidi Foundation is a feminist organization led by women and focuses on the well-being of women.” FYF identifies their community center as a safe space, essential to the well-being of the Yezidi community and paramount for women and girls.

Centering the experiences of women and providing them the safe space and tools for healing and empowerment are the values that FYF strives to uphold. “We think it is really, really important for local organizations like ours to be empowered. We appreciate the effort from the U.N. and from the big INGOs who are doing a lot of work, and the entire aid community. But we do not want to be [a] dependent community, and so we hope that organizations like ours, FYF, should also be empowered to do its work and receive funding, training, mentoring, and the tools to help the Yezidi community grow in a sustainable and long-term way.” In line with Pari’s point, we must look to the expertise and knowledge held by grassroots gender equality and women’s right organizations, like Women Thrive’s almost 300 members, to inform our development work in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.

Just as she empowers the women that she works with, the development community needs to use this model to provide safe spaces, to empower grassroots advocates to ensure that their priorities, and most importantly their voices are being heard and respected. When combined these ingredients will surely result in development that is sustainable.