Understanding Sexual Violence in Contemporary Warfare

Natalie Chu

A war is being raged on the bodies of men, women and children. In regions of intense armed conflict, massive civilian populations uprooted from their homes are experiencing sexual violence on an unimaginable scale.

In August 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured thousands of Yazidis when their forces swept over northern Iraq. The Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority in Iraq, have faced persecution throughout their history. At the hands of ISIS, thousands of them have been killed and many more who have been unable to escape are continuously being subjected to rape, torture and degrading treatment. Women and children are particularly susceptible to being sexually enslaved.

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Iraqi Yazidis escaping from ISIS in 2014. Image source: Adam Ferguson/New York Times

A report by the United Nations (UN) Commission on Syria provides a horrifying account:

“The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror. The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.”

Similar harrowing stories detailing the atrocities committed by ISIS against Yazidi women erupted in late 2014 to immense media attention, set against the backdrop of increasing levels of brutality and deadly conflict that ISIS was reported to be responsible for.

There is a common narrative circulated by certain media outlets in recent years that portrays Yazidi women as completely helpless victims stuck in the chaos of constant fighting; their fate completely dependent on the political will of state and non-state actors. There is significantly less coverage on the fact that these women are part of a larger group of people who have routinely fought against systematic attempts to wipe out their entire race.

More fundamentally, there is a lack of understanding of how widespread sexual violence is a deliberate weapon of war and tactic of terrorism, and not just a by-product of conflict.

Why Sexual Violence?

First, it represents a major revenue source. For example, it was estimated that in 2014 alone, ransom payments extracted by ISIS from the Yazidi community amounted to between $35 million and $45 million in 2014.

Second, sexual violence is used to physically and psychologically terrorise populations and secure their compliance.

A third related objective is to reinforce disturbing notions of ‘ethnic domination’ over minority groups. The use of rape has been previously documented as a means of ethnic cleansing – to ‘eradicate bloodlines’ not only by forcibly impregnating women but also by rendering them infertile. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hutu gangs raped Tutsi women with such brutality that their reproductive capacities were completely destroyed. Hutu soldiers also deliberately spread HIV/AIDS for this purpose of limiting the ability of these women to bear children. Two years before, Serbian forces had set up rape camps in which Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) women were especially targeted in the hopes of making them unmarriageable and to induce humiliation in them and their community as a whole. Similar motivations underlie ISIS’ use of rape and sexual violence against the Yazidis and other minority groups – Christians, Shi’ites and Alawites. Therefore, it is important to realise that acts of sexual violence are not random or opportunistic, but part of broader strategy used by armed groups such as ISIS today to assert their power.


An Immediate Response

In light of how devastating the effects of large-scale sexual violence are, it is important that the international community acknowledges the gravity of such offences. The United Nations and the European Union, as well as many other states, have recognized that the crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidis constitute genocide – equivalent to what millions of Jews, the Bosniaks in former Yugoslavia and the Tutsis in Rwanda had also suffered at various points in history. This is in part due to the tireless efforts of survivors like Nadia Murad who have testified bravely and used their voices to effect change on an international level.

Recognition should be followed quickly by concrete actions to hold those guilty of sexual crimes accountable through effective reporting and judicial mechanisms. In September 2017, the United Nations Security Council called for the establishment of an independent investigative team to ‘collect, preserve, and store evidence of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by [ISIS]’—including sexual violence. Efforts to contribute to accurate and sensitive documentation will play a key role in achieving justice, but ultimately international and national criminal justice systems must ensure that those guilty of sexual violence are not impervious to judicial reach.

Since the 1990s, the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) have carried out prosecutions of wartime sexual violence, but it clear that every successful conviction is achieved only after years and at great cost – around $35 million at the ICTY and $39 million at the ICTR. Therefore, there must also be, at the national level, the judicial capacity to try serious crimes. The Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has called for the Iraqi government to ‘[a]mend the Iraqi Criminal Code no. 111 of 1969 or enact legislation to ensure that domestic courts have jurisdiction in relation to international crimes committed in Iraq’. It is also critical for rape to no longer remain the ‘least condemned war crime’. So far not a single prosecution has been made in relation to the sexual crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidis. Such a disappointing reality cannot be tolerated.

More Progress Awaits

The Yazidis are also hoping for more than international recognition for the crimes of ISIS against them and justice to be served, but also continuous efforts to rescue and return those still held in captivity, as well as support to rebuild their community.

For many survivors of sexual violence who have managed to escape successfully, they remain trapped by trauma. Research conducted in other conflict regions such as Uganda and Congo have shown that survivors of war-related sexual violence often battle with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), extreme anxiety and depression. This is in addition to the severe physical injuries – genital and non-genital – that almost all survivors suffer from. At Internally Displaced Peoples’ (IDP) camps in Iraq and Kurdistan where many Yazidi survivors remain in, the mental health treatment infrastructure is extremely lacking. As a result, many of them there who are suffering from intense psychological disorders that need immediate and long-term medical attention are struggling to cope in their day-to-day lives.

Social rejection also plays an important role in contributing to poor mental health. Formerly enslaved women and girls have been reported to face stigmatization and abandonment from the own community upon return. The fact that 1 in 5 Iraqi women are subject to domestic violence and that rape does not justify abortion under Iraqi law explain how the greater social context may create more barriers to the reintegration of female victims into society. This is in addition to a hyper-masculine environment that already exists in war-torn regions where men are often seen as primary implementers of violence and major political decision-makers, while women are deemed automatically as non-combatants – their perceived significance limited to being objects for protection and symbols of purity, and conditional on their chastity. Acts of sexual violence are therefore so effective in tearing apart familial and social structures precisely because they exploit gender norms in such patriarchal societies.

Moreover, men and boys should equally be acknowledged as targets of sexual violence. Indeed, as said in a 2013 report by the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “the disparity between levels of conflict-related sexual violence against women and levels against men is rarely as dramatic as one might expect”. The report also included findings that ISIS sexually harms captured teenage Yazidi boys, and claims by Assyrian and Kurdish sources that ISIS uses sexual violence including gang rape against new, indoctrinated recruits as part of their initiation. The effects of these sexual crimes on male victims are largely analogous to those on females: besides the excruciating physical pain, they induce profound humiliation, which often is compounded by authorities’ failure to acknowledge rape and sexual violence against men. The media, often selective and sensationalist, and many times exclusively focused on female victims, have also neglected to create a space in which male survivors can break their silence and share their stories of sexual abuse. This must be changed immediately.

In addition, long-term psycho-social support – in the form of therapy and counselling – for survivors and their families is critical for there to be greater social cohesion. This must also be accompanied socio-economic support – for example, education and training programs aimed at empowering survivors. Yazidis have traditionally lacked access to educational and career-related opportunities, and they are under-represented in Iraqi government positions. Elevating the presence of Yazidis in the public sphere must be part of the efforts to address the political, economic and social discrimination they have repeatedly had to endure and to end the continuum of marginalisation against them as a religious minority.

The Iraqi and Kurdistan governments, as well as the UN agencies and other international bodies, have failed to understand the scale and complexity of conflict-related sexual violence, allowing the shortage of financial resources and the decimation of healthcare systems in areas of conflict, as well as existing social, racial and gender hierarchies to stand in the way of survivors’ road to recovery.

Sexual violence used in conflict leaves invisible, deep and lasting scars in those who have survived and their communities. The world must commit now to healing these wounds and fight against sexual violence as a weapon that can be used anywhere, against anyone.

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