Sexual Violence in ISIS’s “Islamic State”: An International Crime

Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 2, 2014

Whereas ISIS’s brutal beheadings and mass atrocities committed against minority populations have garnered significant international attention, and spurred a multilateral military intervention, their war against women has received much less focus. In their advances across Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters have namely used various forms of sexual and gender-based violence against women and children in areas under their control. ISIS is not alone in committing these atrocities – the latest report of the UN Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict noted indications of sexual violence in 12 recent or ongoing conflicts, and threatening peacebuilding in many other post-conflict situations. Such violence is not merely collateral damage or a byproduct of war, but part of calculated campaigns of terrorism, war, and group destruction which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Terrorizing women in the public sphere

ISIS has targeted prominent women in areas under its control, including several female political candidates. As international forces began air strikes against ISIS position in Iraq and Syria last week, ISIS fighters publically executed Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy, a prominent Iraqi lawyer and women’s rights activist. “Educated, professional women seem to be particularly at risk,” report UN monitors in Iraq. This is not merely an instance of ISIS attacking “the weak and defenseless in acts of brutality and cowardice,” in the words of Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq (SRSG), Mr. Nickolay Mladenov, but rather a violent tactic designed to send a message to both genders about women’s “proper” place in society. ISIS has even deployed an all-female brigade to enforce its strict conception of Islamic “law” and morality, cracking down on women in the public sphere. While ISIS has thus incorporated a number of women into its ranks, Kathy Gilsinan argues that “the Western narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman may be misguided, but as Raqaa's [Syria] experience shows, ‘jihadi girl power’ often comes at other women's expense.” ISIS’s violence against women – even when perpetrated by other women – is not merely the product of a fundamentalist ideology or indiscriminate brutality, but rather a strategic campaign to quell dissent and force women out of proscribed roles in the public sphere.

Targeting women as a means of ethnic cleansing

ISIS has also used sexual violence against women as a means of ethnic cleansing in its campaign against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq. They have kidnapped over 1,000 women and children, and reportedly subjected them to sexual violence, rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery or enforced prostitution. Some escaped women report being given as “gifts” to senior ISIS militants, or “distributed” to the rank and file fighters. Other survivors have committed suicide.

“The sexual targeting of those women is a clear pattern” in conflict, notes Professor Dyan Mazurana, an expert on women and armed conflict “where you have women who symbolize the culture, who symbolize the group, and there is a goal of ethnic cleansing or destroying those groups.” Rather than displacing or killing all members of an ethnic or religious group, systematic rape and other forms sexual violence can serve the goal of ethnic cleaning by eroding the way of life of a community. As Mazurana explains, “sometimes the agendas of ethnic cleansing are better carried out by raping women – sexually violating them – and leaving them alive. You can destroy the fabric of societies, of communities, of families, by doing that.” Such was the case in Bosnia, where Serb fighters committed systematic rape against tens of thousands Muslim women as a part of their strategy of ethnic cleansing, including forced pregnancies to produce children of the perpetrator’s ethnicity. It was also the case during the genocide in Rwanda, where Hutu militiamen employed rape, mutilation and other sexual violence to humiliate Tutsi women, transmit HIV, and prevent them from having Tutsi children. In a similar manner, ISIS employs sexual violence against Yazidi women as a significant part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Yazidi community as a whole.

Sexual and gender-based violence as an international crime

The recognition of sexual violence as an international crime is an important step in protecting vulnerable populations, yet as the case of ISIS highlights, much work remains to be done to end sexual violence in conflict. Sexual violence is explicitly prohibited as a weapon of war under international humanitarian law (IHL), and can constitute a war crime, crime against humanity, and torture. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 protects women against “attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault” [art. 27]. Additional Protocol I (1977) similarly stipulates that “women shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected in particular against rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault” [AP I, art. 76], while Additional Protocol II (1977), applicable in non-international armed conflict, prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form or indecent assault”[AP II, art. 4(2)(e)].

More recently, international criminal courts have recognized a growing list of sexual assault crimes as international crimes, including rape as an instrument of genocide; rape as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing; sexual violence as a form of torture and war crime; wartime rape as a serious violation of IHL; sexual slavery as a crime against humanity; rape as persecution; and forced marriage as a crime against humanity. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in 1998, builds upon the jurisprudence of the ad hoc tribunals with regard to sexual and gender-based crimes, and incorporates mechanisms to support victims. It explicitly defines rape as a war crime and crime against humanity, and provides a broader basis for prosecuting sexual crimes as elements of genocide, torture, or gender-based persecution. 

Responsibility of states

Beyond these developments in the law, there remains a great need to protect vulnerable populations, prevent such crimes from occurring, combat impunity for perpetrators, support victims, and address the long-term legacies of sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict. Preventing and punishing sexual violence is foremost the responsibility of states, which should implement international legal norms within their domestic justice systems, prosecute perpetrators at both the domestic and international levels, and protect vulnerable populations from violence. States also have an obligation to train their armed forces on compliance with IHL and the specific needs of vulnerable populations such as women and children, which includes recognizing these various forms of sexual violence as crimes, and not just the collateral damage of war. 

Role of humanitarian actors

Humanitarian actors can also play a significant role in addressing sexual violence. They can help to prevent such violence by addressing the basic needs of communities affected by war or disaster, including among displaced and refugee populations which are particularly vulnerable. It is especially important for women to be involved in the design of these humanitarian assistance programs to ensure that their specific needs are met. Furthermore, humanitarians can mitigate the impacts of sexual violence by raising awareness among local populations, and providing medical, psychosocial, or material assistance to survivors. Humanitarian actors can work with state actors to design gender-specific protection strategies, such police or security units dedicated to women’s protection, especially for displaced populations. To prevent violence and combat impunity, humanitarians can participate in monitoring, encourage victims to report incidents to law enforcement, and engage with states and non-state armed groups to promote compliance with international law. In this way, humanitarians can help to prevent the heinous crime of sexual violence and serve complex needs of victims and affected communities.

UDPATE: The UN human rights office in Iraq released a new report on Oct. 2, documenting the sexual violence, enslavement and trafficking of women and children by ISIS forces in Iraq.


Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

I had studied the duty to prevent and punish acts of terrorism and militancy for my Bachelor of Laws from 1997-1998 and here’s my gist :


Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said the Al-Ma’unah cult aimed to overthrow his government and set up an Islamic state.

He says most of the 1,800 cult members nationwide also belong to the main opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

ISIS has hit another military base in Iraq, this time in the town of Heet about 100 miles from Baghdad and seized more military equipment and weapons.


Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture

Hi Julia, & HHI!

24 youths who travelled from Kerala to Afghanistan to join the Islamic (IS) State were regulars at IRF’s office in Mumbai.
Naik, who was granted Malaysian permanent resident status five years ago, has been in and out of Malaysia frequently.

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