As Tursun’s translator, Zubayra Shamseden, who is also the outreach coordinator for the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, wrote in an essay back in April, the Chinese government “wants to erase Uighur culture and identity by remaking its women.” Shamseden’s take — that if you want to eradicate a people, you must destroy its women — was not lost on the drafters of the Genocide Convention or the lawyers who shaped the doctrine of crimes against humanity. Both include nonlethal atrocities that are disproportionately perpetrated against women. Acts designed to prevent births and forcibly transfer children from their families could constitute genocide. Similarly, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and sexual violence each constitute a crime against humanity.
Though international law recognizes the gendered nature of mass atrocities, the world has paid little attention to the gender disparities of China’s campaign against the Uighurs. While women likely make up only an estimated 27 percent of the 1.5 million Uighur and other Turkic Muslims detained in Xinjiang’s internment camps, their treatment has an outsize impact on Uighur culture. By targeting women, China is attempting to dilute the Uighur population and destroy its culture.
Tursun’s testimony was the first time the international community heard that women in Xinjiang’s camps were forced to undergo treatment that disrupts their menstrual cycles. Since then, others have said the same thing. Gulbahar Jelilova, a businesswoman and another Uighur internment victim who was held in a cell with 40 other women, also stated that female inmates were injected weekly with a substance that stopped their periods.
Allegations of rape in the camps have surfaced, too. Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh who was forced to work in one of the women’s camps in Xinjiang, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that every evening, the guards would take the pretty inmates with them, returning them in the morning. She also saw incidents of gang rape, including of one female inmate while other inmates were forced to watch. Shamseden told me that she too has heard that rape is common in the camps — as well as outside of the camps, where Uighur women are forced into situations where sexual harassment and sexual assault by their Han Chinese male bosses are prevalent.
In 2018, the government ramped up a program for Communist Party cadres to stay with a Uighur’s family home for five days every two months to “teach” the Uighurs about national unity. But this is another opportunity for Han Chinese men to take advantage of Uighur women. When I told Australian genocide expert Deborah Mayersen about these home visits, she immediately likened the situation to Ottoman Empire soldiers staying in Armenian homes prior to the Armenian genocide, where they were able to rape Armenian women with impunity.
Then there are the Chinese government’s efforts to minimize Uighur births and remove their children from their care. As gender studies expert Leta Hong Fincher highlighted in her recent book, the government has offered incentives for Uighur couples to have fewer children and for Uighur women to marry outside of their race. A large number of Uighur children have also been removed from their families and placed in boarding schools, according to a recent report, leaving the Chinese state to raise them.
The sexual violence against and forced sterilization of Uighur women and removal of Uighur children constitute crimes against humanity. So why isn’t the international community taking a stand? Why isn’t more attention paid to eyewitness accounts from women held in different camps that are eerily similar and mounting up? Especially since China has resisted international attempts to freely investigate what is happening in Xinjiang.
The United States is one of the few countries trying to do something. Last month, in a rare show of bipartisan support, the Senate passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and this month the administration issued a flurry of sanctions on Chinese companies and citizens. But there has been no mention of the stories of rape, forced sterilization or sexual harassment in any of these responses.
Even if the camps are disbanded, China’s gendered policies would remain. In addition to demanding that the Chinese government close the internment camps, the U.S. government — and the rest of the world — must insist that the government end the abuse of Uighur women as well.