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The best way to counter ISIS's cruelty

Too often in wars involving sexual violence, communities retaliate against female survivors, leaving them with little economic support when the conflict ends.
Yezidi women bake bread on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, Mosul, March 2, 2015, after fleeing from ISIS attacks to a shelter in the Sinjar Mountain. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty)
Yezidi women bake bread on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, Mosul, March 2, 2015, after fleeing from ISIS attacks to a shelter in the Sinjar Mountain.

I recently met “Noor,” a 16-year-old Yezidi girl who had escaped from ISIS six months earlier. The extremist group abducted her from her hometown in Iraq in August and locked her in a house with young women and girls who were being forcibly married off or sold to ISIS fighters. 

Noor and a friend attempted suicide together -- she showed me the scars on her wrists. But they survived. Then two ISIS fighters took them and said, “You are sold to us.” The men beat and raped the girls for five days. Noor and her friend managed to escape while the men were away fighting.

My colleagues and I spoke with 20 Yezidi women and girls who had escaped from ISIS. They described abductions, forced marriages, sexual slavery and rape.

But Noor’s story in particular stayed with me. All the other women and girls I met in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, showed signs of acute emotional distress, describing how they constantly remembered the horror of their abductions and abuse. But Noor showed signs of healing.

Yezidi community activists told me that when Noor escaped, in September, she was a ghost of her former self. She was deeply traumatized and cried most of the time. They arranged for her to see a psychotherapist, and they and her parents encouraged her to keep getting therapy. Noor said she was taking a sewing class and that sometimes members of a nongovernmental group took her out of the camp to the local mall. Undoubtedly, hers is a fragile recovery. She still has nightmares but is beginning to feel better. She has a spark in her eye and she smiled and joked with me. Like any teenager, she texted on her phone and wore half of a “best friend” necklace.

"Too often in conflicts involving sexual violence, communities retaliate against female survivors."'

Noor is a positive example of the impact of appropriate treatment and family and community support on the lives of survivors of sexual violence. But treatment and support for women and girls who have escaped from ISIS is not as available as it needs to be, and it’s not always easy to convince survivors to seek help. Local officials and some organizations told us in February that they were only able to identify about 100 women and girls out of a few hundred who were believed to have escaped, partly because of the stigma associated with sexual violence.

Too often in conflicts involving sexual violence, communities retaliate against female survivors. Husbands desert wives, families abandon daughters. Survivors are left with little economic support and when the conflict ends, some women and girls cannot return home for fear of rejection.

Of particular concern is the potential for violence, even killings, by families to purge “dishonor.” Such violence and even killings are common in Iraq across religious and ethnic divides. Under Iraq’s penal code, a murder sentence can be reduced for some so-called “honor” crimes.

But amid the misuses of religion by groups like ISIS to justify brutality, a Yezidi religious leader, Baba Sheikh, issued a statement in September calling for the community to reintegrate survivors of ISIS abuse. In February, he reissued the appeal, calling on Yezidis to “cooperate with and support these victims so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society.” These statements appear to have helped protect Yezidi women and girls from harm and have encouraged families to seek treatment for female relatives who return.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, under whose authority most Yezidi escapees now live, along with religious and community officials, can do more to alleviate the stigma surrounding abductions and sexual violence. They can raise awareness that women and girls who have returned should be treated as victims and survivors. They need to feel safe enough to reach out for necessary services and care, and families should be encouraged to support them. 

Women and girls like Noor also need medical treatment, including emergency contraception, safe and legal abortion services where medically appropriate, preventive measures and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. They need prenatal and maternal health services, as well as ongoing counselling. And they need financial assistance, education, and training and opportunities for jobs to help reintegrate them into the broader community.

ISIS is systematically using rape to terrorize and humiliate Yezidi and other women and girls. The Yezidi community has shown that it is willing to stand by the survivors of this brutal war crime. But recovery is going to be a long process, and local officials and Yezidi community and religious leaders should continue to support and protect survivors, press for more resources for treatment, and ensure that these girls and women are not re-victimized within their homes and communities as a result of stigma and from so-called “honor” crimes. This is the best way to counter ISIS’s cruel aims. 

Rothna Begum is a Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.