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The atrocities behind the gates in Xinjiang: The physical and mental persecution of Uyghur women

Xinjiang Region, China, Home of the Uighurs, Photo Source :, 2009.

The atrocities behind the gates in Xinjiang: The physical and mental persecution of Uyghur women

Author: Idil Igdir (Women’s Rights Team)


As the world hopes to prevent another inhumane catastrophe from occurring and any human being from suffering such a dreadful fate again, the 21st century has shown us how little progress we have since the dark times of the 20th century. The world order, which aims to protect people from the dangerous ambitions of politicians and leaders through international mechanisms and law, has witnessed another genocide and crimes against humanity, this time in China, and we are once again stunned by the brutal realities.


China is the most populous country in the world, located in Asia, with more than 1.4 billion inhabitants (Statista, 2021). It has recently caught the world’s attention following its repressive policy against the minority group of Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkic people who live in Xinjiang, China, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in Northwest China. Since 2010s, the Muslim Uyghurs have been subjected to various unutterable treatments from the People’s Republic of China. But, the world was shaken to the core when hundreds and thousands of Uyghurs were forcibly placed in so-called “re-education” camps in 2017. (Human Rights Watch, 2021). While the government tried to hide its brutality under the illusion of a process of re-education of the Uyghurs, no country or international organisation believed this to be true (France 24, 2021). Moreover, the Chinese government has taken draconian measures to control the birth rate, even seeking to end the minority group in order to curb the Muslim population in the region. Thus, as a result of these measures, millions of Muslim Uyghur women were sterilised without their consent, in other words, by force. For this reason, women living in these “re-education” camps continue to be subject to inhumane conditions, impossible to fully describe (Ochab, 2021).


According to an AP News investigation, based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 former detainees, family members and former detention camp instructors, the Chinese government’s actions are leading to what some experts call a form of “demographic genocide” (The Associated Press, 2020). 



Uyghur Muslim women in so-called “re-education” camps

Over the years, there have been numerous reports, interviews and statements regarding the appalling conditions Uyghur Muslim women were subjected to after China’s campaign to control the birth rate of Muslim minority groups and forced placement in “re-education” camps. As a result of long and thorough research and investigation, it is revealed that women are exposed to many inhumane behaviours and actions. According to BBC News, on February 2nd, 2021, “women in China’s ‘re-education’ camps for Uyghurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured”. Among the testimonies collected by BBC News, Tursunay Ziawudun, who spent nine months inside China’s camps in the Xinjiang region, said that “sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras”. She also added that even before the pandemic, the men who took them out of their cells to rape them wore masks and that these men did not have police uniforms but suits (Hill & Campanale & Gunter, 2021). 



It is difficult for women to express the situations they had to live through and share their stories from inside the camps. Yet, many of them courageously spoke out in front of the world to raise awareness, especially among those who have the power to do something about the mistreatment. Another story broke in 2021 by Qelbinur Sedik, an Uzbek woman from Xinjiang who was forced to teach Mandarin in the camps in 2017 and witnessed wanton cruelties. Based on the information received, the Chinese government has begun summoning women for “free” annual gynaecological examinations to screen a wide range of Uyghur women between 18 and 59 years of age. However, even though these examinations were presented as “free of choice”, if the person receiving the call dared not to cooperate, she faced severe penalties. Later on, as Ms. Sedik recounted her own experience, it was understood that these examinations were a trap set up by the authorities to track down Uyghur women and forcibly insert an IUD, an Intrauterine device, as a form of birth control (Ingram, 2020). 

 Moreover, Gulbahar Jeliova, who spent 15 months inside one of the camps, explained that women were forced to take “unknown” medications, undergoing regular blood tests and injections. One of the side effects of these “unknown” medications was to stop having monthly periods (Duxfield & Burrows, 2019). 


Crimes against humanity and genocide under international law 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an international court whose jurisdiction is limited to the four “most serious crimes” at the international level ; crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression (Article 5 of The Statute of Rome, 1998). Thus, for a crime to be considered a crime against humanity, it must comply with Article 7 of the Statute, which states that the crime must be “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”. Hence, crimes against humanity include imprisonment or any other form of deprivation of liberty in violation of international law; persecution of an identifiable ethnic or religious group; enforced disappearance; torture; murder; and alleged inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to mental or physical health, including forced labour and sexual violence (Human Rights Watch, 2021). 


On the other hand, genocide is defined as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” under the terms of Article 6 of the Statute (International Criminal Court, The Statute of Rome, 1998). This includes “killing of members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately applying conditions calculated to cause the physical destruction of the group; take measures to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children from one group to another group” (Ramzy, 2021). 


However, for an act to be considered an act of genocide in accordance with international law, it must have both a “Mens Rea“, moral element, and an “Actus Reus“, criminal act. In other words, in addition to the commission of criminal acts, it is the special intention to physically destroy, in whole or in part, a group for the sole ground that it belongs to a particular nation, ethnicity, race or religion, which guides the constitution of this heinous international crime (Mettraux, 2019). This is also known as “Dolus Specialis”, “Special Intent” (Mettraux, 2019). Therefore, the main criterion for distinguishing genocide from crimes against humanity is the existence of special intent.


Furthermore, following the application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, in ICJ reports in 1996 and 2007, the violation of the obligation to prevent genocide and not to commit genocide, respectively, was confirmed by the Court (ICJ, 2007). Moreover, according to the ICJ, the former was considered to have extraterritorial scope (ICJ, 2007). 


China has been targetting and attacking Muslim Uyghurs because of who they are, both religiously and ethnically. The measures taken by the government have caused serious damage to their physical and mental health, and they have deliberately subjected the minorities to conditions that threaten their existence. That is to say, the Chinese government has a specific intention to lead the eventual erasure of an ethnic and religious minority group in the region (Ramzy, 2021). Moreover, the forced sterilisation of women, thus preventing births within the minority group, provides evidence for characterising their acts as genocide. 


Also, by torturing, raping, enslaving, imprisoning, forcibly placing birth control devices, and arbitrarily detaining, the Chinese government has committed and is still committing crimes against humanity in accordance with international law. That is, China systematically and deliberately persecutes the minority group and forces Muslim Uyghurs to work.


In addition, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide sets out principles that are part of general customary international law, such as the prohibition of genocide and the obligation to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. This means that under customary international law, these binding obligations apply to Contracting Parties and all States, whether they have ratified it or not. That is, China, as a country that ratified the above-mentioned Convention on April 18, 1983, is under the obligation to prevent and therefore to punish the crime of genocide. However, it is important to note that when China agreed to ratify it, the authorities did not hesitate to put a reservation to Article IX of the 1948 Convention (UN Treaty Collection).


The Article IX of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime and Genocide stated as follows: “Disputes between the Contracting Parties relating to the interpretation, application or fulfilment of the present Convention, including those relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or for any of the other acts enumerated in article III, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute.”


Conclusion : 

The Chinese government has systematically denied these accusations and called them “allegations”. However, the whole world has witnessed the treatment and the women who lived through this nightmare know the full extent of the abuse against  the minority groups in Xinjiang. Women are treated like meat in the camps, and their bodies are used as test products. From their right to be treated with dignity to their bodily rights, women are exposed to gruesome treatment in violation of their physical and psychological health. On top of that, they are being forced to stay in this environment.


Considering the atrocities inflicted on the minority group, especially Uyghur Muslim women, it is undeniable that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity under international law.





Aaron O’Neill. (2021, August 17). Twenty countries with the largest population in mid 2021. Statista. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Austin Ramzy. (2021, January 20). China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained. The New York Times. Retrieved from


(2021, April 19). Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


(1948, December 9). Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. United Nations Treaty Collection. Retrieved from


Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab. (2021, February 3). Behind The Camps’ Gates: Rape And Sexual Violence Against Uyghur Women. Forbes. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Flint Duxfield & Ian Burrows. (2019, January 8). Uyghur woman details life inside Chinese ‘re-education camp’ in Xinjiang. Abc News. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


FRANCE 24. (2021, June 10). China’s repression of Uighurs is ‘crime against humanity. France24. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Lorraine Boissoneault. (2022, February 2). Is China Committing Genocide Against the Uyghurs?.  Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Guénaël Mettraux. (2019, June 13). 8 Special Genocidal Intent/Dolus Specialis. Oxford Public International Law. Retrieved April 11, 2022, from


(2007, February 26). ICJ: Serbia did not commit genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but did nothing to prevent it. United Nations, UN News. Retrieved from


Matthew Hill & David Campanale & Joel Gunter. (2021, February 2). Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape. BBC News, World Asia. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Ruth Ingram. (2020, August 17). Confessions of a Xinjiang Camp Teacher. The Diplomat. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


The Associated Press. (2020, June 29). China cuts Uighur births with IUDs, abortion, sterilization. AP News. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


(1998, July 17). The Statute of Rome. International Criminal Court. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from


Women Around the World. (2021, February 12). Women This Week: Violence Against Uighur Women. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from

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