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Disarming sexual violence as a weapon of war in Iraq and Syria

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This weekend marked the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. We take a look at sexual violence in Iraq and Syria as the conflicts in both countries continues.

A 21-year-old married 22 times, undergoing a surgical procedure to “rebuild her virginity” before each forced wedding. Another girl sold, to enable her captor to buy a packet of cigarettes. These are just two stories relayed to Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, during her visit to meet sexual violence survivors that have escaped the wars raging in Iraq and Syria.

This week the UN released a report noting that Daesh has systematically used rape as a tool to erase Yazidi identity in Iraq and Syria to the extent of committing genocide, with thousands of young girls and woman sold into sexual slavery and forced into marriage.  The Syrian regime meanwhile has been accused of using sexual violence to torture female and male prisoners. Human Rights Watch has also reported that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.

While sexual violence was once seen as a by-product of conflict, it is now finally being recognized as a weapon of war that is often deliberately and systematically used to erode the very fabric of a community. Across the world, girls and women have been singled out in times of conflict as targets for sexual violence. Men and boys also fall victim to this destructive weapon.

Yanar Mohammed co-founded the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) in 2003, an organisation that has helped countless women escape from lives of sexual violence. When Daesh began to take over large swathes of territory in the country, the numbers of those in need of urgent assistance grew. Her dedicated team of workers operate on the front-lines of Iraq, making contact with girls and women, sometimes rescuing them by posing as families and entering Daesh-held areas, and bringing them to one of the safe houses in OWFI’s secret network. They often find themselves doing the job of the government, who has not taken the appropriate steps to protect these women, such as legalising their safe houses.

Yanar says in the beginning of Daesh, Yazidi women were singled out as the target for sexual violence. Then, the group also targeted Shia woman for sectarian reasons and Sunni women whose husbands were serving in the Iraqi army and outside the Daesh zone. As a sort of “political revenge” they are forced to marry a Daesh fighter. The group now targets any woman, she says. “It’s not just a Yazidi problem anymore, it’s an Iraq problem”.

Many Syrians and Iraqis have fled their countries to escape the violence, however the insecurity of life as a refugee means they are still vulnerable to sexual exploitation. In neighboring host countries, the precarious situation of refugees has led to patterns of sexual violence by landlords and potential employers. Lebanon was shocked recently at the discovery of 75 Syrian women in a derelict house that had been forced into sexual slavery, tortured and only allowed to leave the building for abortions and treatment for venereal diseases. Meanwhile, survivors who return to their families and communities are often stigmatised as a result of their experiences, leading to re-traumatisation. This is what makes sexual violence such a destructive weapon of war – it can fragment communities beyond repair.

Sexual violence in times of conflict is by no means a new phenomenon –female bodies have been the “unacknowledged casualty of war” for far too long.  But, in recent history there have been major steps in recognising sexual violence in conflict as an international crime. In Bosnia, reports of the enslavement of Muslim women and girls by Serb troops in “rape camps” came to be understood as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing, with many deliberately impregnated so they would bear Serbian babies. The court set up in the conflict’s aftermath passed a landmark ruling defining mass rape and sexual enslavement as crimes against humanity and it was the first international war crimes trial involving charges of sexual violence. The Rwandan genocide tribunal became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime of genocide. With the birth of the ICC, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” were defined as crimes against humanity when committed in a widespread or systematic way.

There are also a number of national programmes aimed at bringing an end to sexual violence in conflict. The UK is leading the way in making preventing sexual violence in conflict a policy priority, launching the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in 2012, and more recently, introducing a protocol promoting the best practice on the documentation of sexual violence as a crime in conflict. Sonya Sceats, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Freedom from Torture, highlights that while internationally the UK promotes survivor testimony as evidence of violent sexual crimes and pushes a strong survivor-centric approach in its protocol, a double standard exists in how the UK’s asylum process treats survivors of sexual violence seeking refuge.

She says that her organisation, deemed an expert in torture documentation, including sexual torture, routinely sees their clinical evidence disregarded by asylum decision makers. This evidence is often substituted for the opinions of the decision makers despite their lack of medical training. There is also the issue of late disclosure of sexual violence related evidence being used as a reason for deeming the evidence unreliable, which Sceats stresses is “completely contrary to the protocol”. “The UK government is demanding that countries recovering from conflict support and protect survivors of sexual violence and deliver justice for them. This is a higher standard than is being applied at home even though the UK is not struggling with post-conflict rule of law issues and, where in theory, there is an understanding of the sensitivities and trauma surrounding these issues.” says Sceats. “It’s astonishingly hypocritical to push this overseas and not at home.”

From the mass rape of Chinese women in Nanking to the deliberate impregnating of Muslim women in Bosnia, the female body has been routinely recruited during conflict to inflict the maximum damage on a population. In Iraq and Syria, the same patterns are being observed, with women, men and children subjected to sexual violence as a tactic of war. In Syria, sexual violence is being perpetrated by the regime and the militias in homes, at checkpoints and in detention. In Iraq, Daesh is using to sexual enslavement as a tool of ethnic cleansing and the Iraqi government is failing to do what it can to protect women. For survivors of sexual violence that manage to escape these countries, life as a refugee makes them vulnerable to further abuse, while asylum processes like those in the UK shed suspicion on their experiences, ensuring the trauma continues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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