Zainab Hawa Bangura visited refugees who fled Iraq, Syria conflict
Sexual violence is being committed against women strategically, she says
Editor’s Note: Zainab Hawa Bangura is the United Nations special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict and serves as the United Nations’ spokesperson and political advocate on conflict-related sexual violence. The views expressed are her own.
Nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard when I visited refugees from the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As I traveled to Iraq and Syria, and to neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to meet with refugees and displaced women, I heard firsthand the horrifying stories of how they have been targeted in this conflict.
I was told, for example, how mothers with babies were separated out by members of ISIL (also known as ISIS) because it is the younger women who they want to take. I heard how these younger women are examined to see if they are virgins, and how the younger and prettier they are, the more likely they are to get taken to ISIL’s headquarters in Raqqa. And I heard how the rest are taken to open markets, where they will end up being auctioned after being examined like cattle.
I was in the Middle East as the special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict, and while I had been monitoring the situation since the crisis began, this was the first time I was able to visit those who have been disproportionately affected by the conflict.
The refugees and displaced women and girls I met told me how sexual violence is being committed strategically, in a systematic manner, and with a high degree of sophistication by most of the parties to the conflicts. Indeed, as I moved from country to country, I came to the terrible conclusion that this is in essence a war on women and girls, a group that finds itself under assault every day, and every step of the way, whether it be in areas of active conflict, those under control of armed actors, or at checkpoints and border crossings.
But while it is true that most parties to the conflict are committing sexual violence, it is extremist groups like ISIL that have been particularly public and shameless in institutionalizing sexual violence and engaging in the brutalization of women and girls as a tactic of terror to advance their key strategic objectives.
For a start, it is clear that ISIL has been working to increase recruitment by promising male fighters access to women and girls. In addition, the group has been raising funds through the sale of women and girls in slave markets and through ransoms paid by relatives. And the group has also been using sexual violence to displace populations, while also using the threat of sexual violence to extract information for intelligence purposes.
Women and girls I spoke with described being treated as property to be owned and traded, or else as vessels for producing children for fighters. In ISIL strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Raqqa and Mosul, women and girls are held in houses and buildings before they are inspected, selected and sold in “bazaars” where prices can be negotiated. Simply put, we have been witnessing the revival of the slave trade in the 21st century.
What can and should we do? Such extreme violence requires political and security responses, but also legal and social response.
For a start, all parties to the conflicts, both state and nonstate actors, have an obligation under international humanitarian law to prevent and punish such crimes. Second, U.N. agencies need greater support to be able to provide the necessary assistance and to be able to respond to the needs of the affected population, particularly women and girls who are suffering even in the places where they are seeking refuge. The reality is that the humanitarian appeals dealing with the provision of services to sexual violence survivors are underfunded, and neighboring countries are now also under tremendous pressure. Greater support is therefore needed not only for programs for refugees, but also to support host communities of neighboring countries that have absorbed an estimated 80% of the refugees.
To address the transnational nature of ISIL, and the cross-border dimensions of the conflicts raging in the region, a concerted regional and international response is required, including improved information sharing across countries and a common counterterrorism response with women’s protection and empowerment at its heart.
Such a response should also look at the root causes of violent extremism, something that we cannot ignore any longer. Preventing abuses will require deeper engagement with communities, including with traditional and religious leaders who can help break the silence surrounding sexual violence and ensure that it is the perpetrators who are shamed and stigmatized, not the victims. In fact, if there was a glimmer of hope during my visit, it was the statement issued by the supreme spiritual leader of the Yazidi community, who said that women and girls released from ISIL captivity should be embraced and reintegrated by their families and communities. Countering ISIL’s violent ideology will mean accepting these women and girls – and any children they may have – in a spirit of tolerance, dignity and respect.
Ultimately, we cannot beat ISIL without understanding who they are, where they come from, and what their ideology is. The group presents a very formidable enemy, one that we must fight together.