Women of Conflict

Nikki in Iraq
Nikki Junker (left) with Sherizaan Minwalla at Lalish, the Yazidis sacred grounds, in Northern Iraq


Ph.D. student researches plight of Iraqi captives

KENNESAW, Ga. (Aug 15, 2016) — Nikki Junker, a student in Kennesaw State’s Ph.D. program in International Conflict Management (INCM) completes a research project she worked on this summer in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, aspects of her professional and academic lives become intertwined. 

In the role of co-researcher on the Monmouth University-sponsored project, Junker interviewed Yazidi women, who as members of the region’s Kurdish minority, were captured by ISIS, sexually assaulted and ultimately escaped or were rescued. Working with Johanna Foster, assistant professor of sociology at Monmouth University, and Sherizaan Minwalla, a leading women’s justice advocate, Junker sought to document community perceptions of whether the women were retraumatized when members of the media gathered and published their stories and potentially exposed them to further isolation within their religious community. 

This fall, when Junker begins working on her dissertation proposal on the reintegration of victims of conflict-related sexual violence, she will build on what she learned on the project with Foster and Minwalla and bridge work she began in 2014. She first became aware of the issues facing the Yazidi community while working for the USAID-funded Access to Justice Program in Baghdad, Iraq. She was sent to Kurdistan to learn about how the program could help this vulnerable population of nearly 400,000, whom the United Nations confirmed were victims of mass killings, rape and other crimes perpetrated by the Islamic State.  

“The Kurdish and Iraqi governments knew that the status of women survivors was a particular problem, but there was little in the way of an organized program for them at the time,” Junker said. “It became very obvious that a structured program was needed for these victims, and this is the focus of my dissertation ─ to create such a structure.”

Junker said the experience led her to seek ways to deepen her knowledge of issues related to women who are victims of conflict-related sexual violence and to conduct research leading to the development of strategies and solutions to help mitigate the negative consequences of sexual and other trauma they face. 

“I began looking for doctoral programs and chose Kennesaw State because it offered a program focused on international conflict management,” said Junker, who is a member of INCM’s spring 2016 cohort. She also is a Clendenin Scholar, an endowed scholarship program that funds graduate study at Kennesaw State.

While still at her position in Iraq, Junker heard Minwalla discuss the plight of Yazidi women during an NPR interview and subsequently met her in Kurdistan.

“We were both concerned about ethical violations in some of the media coverage of women who had returned from captivity – that by identifying them as victims of rape, journalists were exposing them to re-traumatization during interviews and making reintegration into their religious community more difficult.”

Junker said she was honored to work on the research this summer alongside Foster and Minwalla, who served as women's protection and empowerment coordinator at the International Rescue Committee and is seen as one of the region’s leading experts on gender-based violence. Junker’s contributions to the research included the “academic legwork” of conducting a literature review, developing questions from a victim’s standpoint, and conducting more than 100 interviews with NGO workers, Yazidi religious leaders, community leaders, and most importantly, with women, whom she said provided “the most important” responses. 

Researching victims of sexual assault in conflict situations is difficult and delicate work that must be conducted under precise ethical guidelines, Junker said. She and her colleagues followed detailed guidelines outlined by the United Nation’s Gender Based Violence Cluster to protect the safety and identity of such victims during interactions with researchers.

“It’s taken us about five months, and we’re still going through the data and transcribing, but we’ve already determined that ethical violations that are detrimental to women have occurred,” Junker said. “One product of this work will be a guideline for the community and the press and for how victims can safely interact with the media.”

In the meantime, Junker continues her focus on the plight of the people in conflict situations. After her work in Iraq, she traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, to attend the three-week International Security and Peace Institute's Annual Symposium on Conflict Transitions and International Justice, where she hoped to learn more about the ongoing push for a tribunal for the Yazidi genocide. She also will continue working on research with Debarati Sen,assistant professor of anthropology and international conflict management, related to reintegration of conflict-related sexual violence victims and ex-combatants.

“The support of the INCM program has allowed me to be a part of groundbreaking research that gave us a chance to speak to the people most impacted by conflict and to give them a voice,” Junker said. “The population on which I will focus in my dissertation research deserve someone who has spent the time and resources to understand every angle of the issue in order to assist in their reintegration. The INCM program at KSU and the Clendenin Scholars program is allowing me to do just that.”


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu