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It has been nearly a year since the self-proclaimed Islamic State kidnapped an estimated three thousand Yazidi women and children during an attack on their villages in northern Iraq. The Islamic State views these attacks, kidnappings, and killings as justifiable because they consider the Yazidi people—a religious minority group—infidels and devil-worshipers.
An English-language magazine article published by the Islamic State noted, “Before [the Devil] reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one would remember that enslaving the families of the [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Shariah.” Another document, published by the Islamic State’s “Religious Edicts Council,” reaffirmed that kidnapped and enslaved women were allowed to be bought, sold, and given as gifts by Islamic State members.
The Islamic State subjects the Yazidi women to organized rape, sexual assault, forced marriages, forced conversions, sexual slavery, and other abuses during their captivity. Recent testimony from Yazidi women and girls who have escaped confirm this grim reality. In fact, some women reported being bought and sold for $2,000.
Most who escape from the Islamic State do so with assistance from Yazidi activists who have created an underground network of safe houses and guides to help women escape. However, these efforts would not be possible without the critical support of former captives, who are knowledgeable about the Islamic State’s territory and are able to provide information about where enslaved women are being held, among other crucial intelligence.
Though the Yazidi activists’ work offers a story of heroism in the face of great brutality, this effort alone is not enough to assist an estimated 3,500 Yazidis still held captive. Currently, there are no major initiatives or concentrated efforts to enter Islamic State’s territory to rescue the rest of the women still in the Islamic State’s captivity. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has provided some assistance to activists running the underground network. While the UN has requested $498 million to provide food, water, shelter, and basic education and health care to those fleeing the Islamic State, it has thus far received only 30 percent of the total. Therefore, there is limited support for women and children who escape from the Islamic State’s grip.
Some of the women are pregnant and bearing the children of their captors. Abortion is not legal in Iraq, and it is not yet clear how much support the women will receive from their communities to raise these children.
Many of the escaped women and children now live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where most of the Yazidis fled in August 2014. The KRG provides health services for escaped Yazidi women, but access to psychological care is limited. In September 2014, a prominent Yazidi religious leader, Baba Sheikh, issued a statement, asking the community to welcome women who escaped from the Islamic State back into the community. This statement reportedly has helped prevent Yazidi women from being negatively stigmatized and allowed them to more easily reintegrate back into daily life.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, 513 Yazidi women and 304 Yazidi children have escaped from the Islamic State as of March 15, 2015. Thousands more remain enslaved by the Islamic State. From a humanitarian perspective, further efforts to rescue and help these women reintegrate into their communities is urgent. Their experiences also have the potential to offer critical insight into the inner workings of the Islamic State. Those who have escaped could offer a blueprint for how to rescue others as well as critical intelligence that can help combat the Islamic State.