Yazidi women are being targeted as women, and as members of the Yazidi people – with the aim of destroying individuals, families and the whole community.
On 3 August 2014, nineteen-year-old Yazidi woman, Seve, witnessed something no human should ever have to see – her own husband shot and killed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, in one of several massacres carried out near Mount Sinjar.
Yet this trauma was only the first of many for Seve. Abducted by her husband’s murderers, Seve was then forced to ‘marry’ one of the fighters. Human Rights Watch reported her chilling testimony of the group wedding:
They were tossing sweets at us and taking photos and videos of us. They forced us to look happy for the videos and photos. The fighters were so happy; they were firing shots in the air and shouting… There was one woman from Kocho who was very beautiful. The leader of the fighters took her for himself. They dressed her up like a bride.
Seve managed to escape her new ‘husband’ after a few long days but her own husband was no longer alive to return to, having been murdered by ISIS. Seve’s own future is likely to be strewn with enormous obstacles.”. For the nameless woman from Kocho who was taken by the ISIS group leader, and thousands of others in similar circumstances, the unimaginable nightmare continues – absent from the headlines and virtually ignored by the international community.
Sexual violence, as defined by the International Criminal Court, encompasses rape as well as sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and enforced impregnation or sterilisation. Although it was historically considered an inevitable side effect of war, international law now recognises that sexual violence can be a war crime and a crime against humanity, and in the context of ethnic or religious violence, it can also serve as “a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.
In ISIS’s broad genocidal arsenal (which includes key indicators of genocide such as local massacres, cultural and religious vandalism and forced conversion), gendered tactics of sexual violence are being used as complex weapons – embedded with intent to destroy the Yazidi group – that simultaneously target the individual, the family and the community.
When mothers are forced to listen to their daughters being gang-raped, when husbands witness their wives and daughters being abducted, these horrors represent a violation of the individual victim’s human rights, as well as a brutal assault on families, as the symbolic core of the group’s continuity.
In its October 2014 report, the UN confirmed a number of incidents in which women and girls were abducted, given to IS fighters as a ‘reward’, forcibly married, or trafficked as sex slaves. To date, up to 7,000 women are estimated to have been taken.
These tactics are neither isolated nor opportunistic; rather, they are being systematically perpetrated by ISIS fighters and encouraged by its leaders. In its own online magazine, ISIS has admitted to the practice of dividing women and girls among ISIS fighters as “slaves”, claiming that:
…one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah.
Survivor Seve witnessed more than twenty young women taken to be sold “in the Syria slavery market”. Other witnesses have seen lines of women covered from head to toe and tied to one another with rope, as well as women presented in the markets of Mosul with price tags.
ISIS’s use of sexual violence must be seen as falling within the framework of the UN Genocide Convention, since it is designed to cause serious physical and mental harm; impose conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction; and prevent births within the victim group. Many of the victims will never see freedom again; those who escape are left with long-term physical and psychological damage and may face difficulties re-integrating into their communities, due to stigma and ongoing shame.
In July 2014, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence, Zainab Hawa Bangura, called on combatants in Iraq to cease using the bodies of innocent civilians as battlefields, but her call has been ignored, and indeed, sexual violence against Yazidi women has escalated in scale since that time.
Thousands of women have been abducted and assaulted, families have been ripped apart and communities shattered. While the international community has contributed some humanitarian assistance, further action must be taken to provide survivors with refuge and support, as well as to protect remaining Yazidi women and girls from ongoing genocide.
Nikki Marczak; Researcher, Brisbane, Australia