Feeling an equal mix of utter inspiration and gut-wrenching devastation over what women still have to endure all over the world, our experience at the Sixth Annual Women In The World Summit yesterday was beyond our wildest expectations, and one that touched us all in the most profound ways. Of everything that we saw and learned, and of all the extraordinary women we heard speak, Vian Dakheel Saeed is a woman we will never forget and a woman everyone should know.
This was the video that introduced the WITW audience to 43-year-old Vian Dakheel Saeed, who has been called “the woman most wanted by ISIS.” Holding degrees in biology and immunology, Vian is member of the Iraqi parliament, serving as the only female representative of the Yazidi, an ancient religion and culture of northern Iraq. She is a fierce advocate for her people, Yazidi refugees and victims, who have been run out of their homes, and “systematically raped, abducted, and massacred by ISIS militants.” In one of the most powerful speeches we have ever seen, this was the impassioned plea Vian made to the Iraqi Parliament in August 2014, beseeching them to act against the unthinkable atrocities being committed against her people, and to help those who continue to suffer and die.
The video ended, the stage lights went up, and there was Vian, right in front of us, on the Women In The World stage, seated alongside her sister, Delan Dakheel Saeed, a doctor who works with Yazidi refugees and victims. These two women, who possess immeasurable levels of courage and strength, were joined by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Alissa Johannsen Rubin, Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, and Deborah Roberts of ABC News, who moderated what was an incredibly emotional discussion.
Speaking at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday, [Vian] Saeed said she does not fear for her life. “I don’t matter,” she said. “I’m not thinking about my life.” What is more important, she said, is that nine-year-old girls are getting raped by militants. “When I think about that, I think, my life, it’s nothing.”
ISIS forces attacked the Yazidi territory around Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq last August, slaughtering thousands and taking thousands more captive. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Young women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery. “Everything happened only because they are Yazidi, only because they are a different religion,” said Saeed.
She described a man who had begged for her help in retrieving his 11-year-old daughter, kidnapped by militants. “ISIS had called him and told him: ‘Your daughter is with me, and I will sell your daughter. If you have the money, you can buy her back.’ The father said, ‘I don’t have $2,000 to buy my daughter.’ He was crying. He said Vian, ‘I need to buy back my daughter because I lost my wife, my family.’”
Saeed’s sister, Delan Dakheel Saeed, a doctor who works with refugees and victims, also spoke at the summit, telling a chilling tale of one victim. “A young lady begged me to broadcast a story that she witnessed in one of the houses she was kept in,” she said. The witness described a nine-year-old girl who had been taken from her home. “The ISIS fighters killed her father in their backyard in front of her eyes. They took the nine-year-old and her mother and kept them in one of their houses. Every morning, ISIS fighters come in and choose what girl they are going to rape that morning. Imagine waiting every morning and hoping that it is not you that is going to be raped.”
One morning, a man chose the nine-year-old. “The mother got crazy, and they burned her hands,” she said. “She started screaming, and at that time, they shoot her in the head, in front of all other girls. They left her there in her blood.”
Delan said she had adopted a 15-year-old girl who had been sold as many as 20 times as a sex slave. “The last time she was sold for $1. Every time she was sold, the men that bought her raped her six, seven times, then got sick of her,” she said. “She’s so beautiful and she’s so smart. Her dream was to finish medical school. I’m helping her to make her dream possible. And I promise her that I will keep taking care of her until her mother, who is still kidnapped, comes back to her. We have a deal that she will keep calling me ‘Mom’ until her mother comes back.”