Gender and Peace, No. 3 - October 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
School for a Culture of Peace (ECP)

ISIS: Sexual abuse and violence in Iraq

After leading attacks in Syria, the armed jihadist group Islamic State (better known as ISIS or IS) has captured international attention in recent months for its bloody offensive and rapid rise in northern Iraq. One of the features of its modus operandi has been the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, which has been widely denounced by the UN, human rights organisations and local women's groups. ISIS has been accused of perpetrating savage acts of sexual violence against thousands of people, the vast majority of them women and adolescents of both sexes, including mass kidnappings and rape, the forced marriage of women and girls to the group's combatants, situations of sexual slavery and the sale and purchase of women considered war trophies, among other practices.

The minorities of Iraq have been the main victims of this violence. According to a joint statement by the UN Secretary-General's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, and the special envoy for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, by mid-August around 1,500 people from Yazidi and Christian communities had been forced into sexual slavery. A recent report by Amnesty International detailing the persecution of the minorities of Iraq by ISIS described some forms of abuse to which the group is subjecting women and girls, noting that some of its victims that have been raped or forced to marry their captors have committed suicide. According to various analysts, the group is deliberately using sexual violence as a strategy to instil terror, strengthen its control, destabilise conquered communities and stigmatise the female victims of abuse in a context where women are considered the repository of collective honour.

In addition to sexual violence, the women of Iraq have suffered (and in many cases continue to suffer) from othereffects of the advance of ISIS. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes in search of shelter, exposing themselves to situations of extreme vulnerability and even dying of hunger and thirst, as happened to the Yazidi population that fled to Sinjar Mountain in August. In the territory where the armed jihadist group has established control, it has imposed a strict code of behaviour and dress that does not allow women to leave home unaccompanied by a man from their family and forces them to fully cover themselves in public places. Those that do not comply with these restrictions risk being publicly beaten. Cases have also been reported of women forced to convert to Islam. In addition, evidence suggests that ISIS has executed many women, including one accused of adultery, two others that had been candidates in the recent elections in Iraq and the lawyer and women's rights activist Sameera Salihal-Nuaimi, who was tortured and executed in public after criticising ISIS for destroying heritage in Mosul. The United Nations has received information on the summary trials and executions of women and has warned that educated and professional women are especially likely to suffer violence at the hands of the group.

Given this situation, Iraqi women's organisations have called on the international community to take action against ISIS. The Iraqi Women Network (IWN), which brings together 90 women's groups, made a special appeal to the UN Security Council, the CEDAW Committee and the Human Rights Council to act to secure the condemnation of the barbaric practices of ISIS, which may be classified as crimes of genocide. Specifically, the IWN requested the creation of an international committee to investigate the situation of women in territories controlled by ISIS, the adoption of measures to free women and children held by the armed group, the protection of displaced women and their families, the provision of urgent humanitarian aid and medical assistance to the victims of ISIS and the protection of witnesses to abuse.

Meanwhile, women have also organised and demonstrated locally. In different cities around the country, including several in the province of Anbar where ISIS has consolidated its position, groups such as the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) are working to provide shelter, food and medical attention to women that have been raped or that have fled their homes due to the violence of ISIS. With no intention to understate the seriousness of the jihadist group's crimes, some voices have stressed that violence against women in Iraq did not begin or end with ISIS, but lies along a continuum that has characterised the turbulent post-invasion scene in the country. Thus, they have drawn attention to the hypocrisy of some authorities that now warn about ISIS but did not act to stop gender violence over the last decade despite continued complaints by Iraqi women's organisations.

[Please see PDF on top right for other articles, including "Forced Displacement in Syria" and "Subcommittee on gender in the peace negotiations in Colombia".]

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