‘Many of those held as sexual slaves are children - girls aged 14, 15 or even younger’ - Donatella Rovera
Torture, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, suffered by women and girls from Iraq’s Yezidi minority who were abducted by the Islamic State armed group, highlights the savagery of life in areas controlled by the group, said Amnesty International in a new briefing today (23 December).
Amnesty’s 18-page briefing - Escape from hell: torture and sexual slavery in Islamic State captivity - provides an insight into the horrifying abuse suffered by hundreds (possibly thousands) of Yezidi women and girls who have been forcibly married, “sold” or given as “gifts” to Islamic State fighters or their supporters. Often, captives were forced to convert to Islam.
Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor Donatella Rovera, who spoke to more than 40 former captives in northern Iraq, said:
“Hundreds of Yezidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in Islamic State captivity.
“Many of those held as sexual slaves are children - girls aged 14, 15 or even younger. Islamic State fighters are using rape as a weapon in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The women and girls are among thousands of Yezidis from the Sinjar region in north-west Iraq who have been targeted since August in a wave of ethnic cleansing by Islamic State fighters bent on wiping out ethnic and religious minorities in the area.
Suicide attempts to escape the trauma
The horrors endured in Islamic State captivity have left these women and girls so severely traumatised that some have been driven to end their own lives. Nineteen-year-old Jilan committed suicide while being held captive in Mosul because she feared she would be raped, her brother told Amnesty. One of the girls, who managed to escape, was held in the same room as Jilan and 20 others, including two girls aged ten and 12. She told Amnesty:
“One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes. Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful; I think she knew she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.”
Wafa, 27, another former captive, told Amnesty how she and her sister attempted to end their lives one night after their captor threatened them with forced marriage. They tried to strangle themselves with scarves but two girls sleeping in the same room awoke and stopped them. Wafa said:
“We tied the scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could, until I fainted … I could not speak for several days after that.”
The majority of the perpetrators are Iraqi and Syrian men; many of them are Islamic State fighters but others are believed to be supporters of the group. Several former captives said they had been held in family homes where they lived with their captors’ wives and children. Many Yezidi survivors are doubly affected as they are also struggling to cope with the loss of dozens of their relatives who either remain in captivity or have been killed by the Islamic State.
One girl “sold” to a man who raped her
Randa, a 16-year-old girl from a village near Mount Sinjar, was abducted with scores of her family members including her heavily-pregnant mother. Randa was “sold” or given as a “gift” to a man twice her age who raped her. She described the impact of her ordeal:
“It is so painful what they did to me and to my family. Da’esh [Islamic State] has ruined our lives … What will happen to my family? I don’t know if I will ever see them again.”
The trauma of survivors of sexual violence is further exacerbated by the stigma surrounding rape. Survivors feel that their “honour” and that of their families has been tarnished and fear that their standing in society will be diminished as a result. Meanwhile, many survivors of sexual violence are still not receiving the full help and support they desperately need.
Donatella Rovera added:
“The physical and psychological toll of the horrifying sexual violence these women have endured is catastrophic. Many of them have been tortured and treated as chattel. Even those who have managed to escape remain deeply traumatised.
“The Kurdistan Regional Government, UN and other humanitarian organisations who are providing medical and other support services to survivors of sexual violence must step up their efforts. They must ensure they are swiftly and proactively reaching out to all those who may need them, and that women and girls are made aware of the support available to them.”
Amnesty said that such services should include sexual and reproductive health services, as well as counselling and trauma support.