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A lead story in today’s New York Times reports, “The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution.” In fact, sexual violence has become a crucial part of the political economy of some of today’s terrorist organizations.
Last month, I attended an event at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), on Women and Countering Violent Extremism where experts from government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academia, discussed women and countering violent extremism (CVE). One issue, among many, we discussed was the use of sexual violence by violent extremist groups. From Boko Haram to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, sexual violence against women is a common, yet brutal strategy used by extremists to consolidate power, spread fear, and foster their ideology. This type of violence against women is “…integrally linked with the strategic objectives, ideology, and funding of extremist groups,” noted a United Nations (UN) report released earlier this year.
As UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura noted at the USIP event last month, “We’re also seeing a new phenomenon, sexual violence being used as tactic of terror, to displace communities, and destroy existing family and community structures. To strike fear into the heart of civilian population, to extract intelligence, and to generate revenue for trafficking, trading, gifting, auctioning, and ransoming women and girls as part of the currency by which [the Islamic State] consolidates its power.”
One video that emerged last year showed Islamic State fighters gleefully bartering for kidnapped Yazidi women at a slave market. Kidnapped women and girls are sold for ransom as a method for generating revenue, and sexual slaves are used to entice new recruits to the group. As I discussed in a recent blog post, women are sold, bought, and traded like goods at a market. Today’s New York Times story notes, “the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts[,] [a]nd the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.” Extremists also use sexual violence against women as way to weaken communities into submission and punish those who resist their ideology.
Not only do extremists groups use sexual violence to control communities, but also to create new generations of terrorists. Reports abound of Boko Haram fighters enslaving and kidnapping women, and girls, with the primary goal of getting them pregnant. For the Islamic State as well, one of their objectives is to create new generations of extremists indoctrinated with their beliefs from birth. They have focused heavily on recruiting children –those training with the Islamic State are known as the “Cubs of the Caliphate” – and preparing them to commit acts of terror. Reportedly, Boko Haram raped hundreds of women as a part of a strategy to both debilitate local communities and create the next generation of militants. Similarly, as Ms. Bangura noted at last month’s USIP event, “[The Islamic State] understands full well that you cannot build a state with only male fighters. ….[E]xtremist groups are not only controlling territories and land, they are controlling women’s physical, sexual, and reproductive rights in order to give rise to a new generation raised in their own image.”
Hundreds of women have been subjected to sexual violence by terrorist organizations, yet humanitarian assistance for survivors is limited. “We need a humanitarian surge. It can’t be just Canada, it can’t be just Europe — everyone has a role to play in attending to the sheer scope to the damage,” said Ms. Bangura in an interview. In the interview, Bangura recounted what she said to the Yazidi girls who had escaped, “‘[W]e can provide counseling, we can help you go to school and make something of yourselves, become whole again.’” Bangura further noted, “This is precisely what ISIS does not want. [We can] help these women recover and giving them a path to thrive. But they need qualified medical and psychosocial support and neither the UN nor the regional authorities are in a position to provide it.”
In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted, UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which is geared toward increasing the participation of women in the resolution and prevention of conflict. After all, women are not just victims of war, but have been leaders in peace and security issues, and – as I’ve noted elsewhere – the women’s participation has led to more sustainable peace, reduced conflict, and lessened extremism.
A major theme of the USIP event was the need to find ways to link this year’s fifteen year anniversary of Resolution 1325 (which was adopted before the September 11 terrorist attacks) with efforts to address the new face of war. In implementing National Action Plans on Women, Peace, and Security (to implement Resolution 1325), the United States and other countries should develop and resource strategies to more effectively draw connections between women and CVE, including supporting local women’s groups in conflict zones, which – as discussed at the USIP event – are empowering mothers and other female leaders to combat violent extremism in their own communities.