04/09/2015 03:16 PM EDT
ISIL's Abuses Against Women and Girls in Iraq and Syria
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Swiss Ambassador's Residence
March 16, 2015
As prepared for delivery
Thank you to our host, Ambassador Dahinden, for holding this very important series of discussions. And to Vital Voices for their partnership in fighting violence against women around the world. Women and girls often suffer the most egregious forms of violence in war. We’ve seen this in the Congo, in Colombia, in Sudan, and we’re seeing it now in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State, or Daesh as the group is called in the region, has kidnapped thousands of women and girls, some as young as 10 They’ve been separated from their families, sold as sex slaves or forcibly married to Daesh’s fighters.
In my bureau, Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), we began receiving reports about captive women and girls almost immediately after Daesh’s early-August advance at Mt. Sinjar. Representatives of the Yezidi community in the United States contacted us to share the terrible stories of suffering they were hearing from relatives trapped on the mountain, communicating via mobile phones they were sometimes able to charge using car batteries. As the crisis on Sinjar unfolded, my staff organized meetings with high-level officials at the State Department and the White House for representatives of the Yezidi community in the United States and we heard firsthand their stories and requests for assistance. They talked about hearing children crying for water in the background of phone calls with relatives. One woman described how she had heard a woman being raped by Daesh fighters in the background of a call with another woman.
On August 7, in addition to authorizing operations to protect U.S. personnel, President Obama authorized a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who were trapped on Mount Sinjar without food and water, facing almost certain death. Detailed information—and even GPS coordinates—provided by the Yezidi community in the U.S. on where the people were sheltered on Mount Sinjar helped inform decisions about where to drop aid. Targeted airstrikes helped protect the evacuation route as people were escaping. Our contacts in the Yezidi community also provided us information about where Daesh fighters were advancing or firing on evacuees as they escaped, and we shared this information immediately with the military. During that week, most civilians were able to evacuate from Mount Sinjar
But not everyone in the surrounding area was able to flee. Several thousand women and girls remain captive. We regularly receive blood-chilling reports of girls distributed to fighters as rewards for their commitment, sold in markets in the cities as sex slaves, or held in houses in small groups where they are raped by a daily rotation of Daesh fighters. We have learned that Daesh trafficked hundreds if not thousands of Yezidi women to Syria for its fighters there. We heard reports that a few dozen Christian women and a few hundred Shia women who had been unable to flee, were taken to a similar fate . Just in the last few weeks, an unknown number of women and girls were abducted as part of the roughly 300 Assyrian Christians taken captive from their villages along the Khabour River in northeast Syria. But Daesh’s predatory approach to women isn’t limited to minorities. Local Sunni women in Raqqa have reportedly been pressured into marrying Daesh fighters against their will, and they are subject to the same abusive practices as the others.
Violence of this sort sows terror; it is a war crime, but it is not merely a by-product of war. Daesh uses rape and sexual abuse as a deliberate military strategy. They target women as tools of war, brutalizing them in order to destabilize and destroy communities—to take away their honor and disrupt their ability to reproduce themselves in the next generation. It’s a matter of total possession, total annihilation of a community.
I emphasize this to say that the defeat of Daesh and the defense of human rights, especially the rights of women, go hand-in-hand. We will restore human rights by defeating Daesh, but the reverse is also true: we will defeat Daesh in part by defending the rights of its intended victims. The protection of women in Iraq isn’t just the endpoint; it’s the way we will win; it is a moral imperative and it is a strategic imperative.
I traveled to Iraq in February and I had the opportunity while I was there to meet with survivors, women who had managed to escape Daesh. I had the opportunity—but I chose not to. It seemed to me unnecessary to compound their suffering by asking them to recount it yet again for the benefit of yet another foreign official. Instead I met with senior leaders in the central government and in the Kurdish regional government to make sure they understood that the protection of women is an extremely high priority for us as we plan the liberation of their land from these terrorists. We talked about the challenge of saving women held captive and the need to make sure that it is part of our military strategy moving forward.
Because while we work to destroy Daesh, we are also planning for the day of liberation—to make sure that when these communities are liberated, we find where Iraqi and Syrian women are being held and we have a support system in place to help them heal. We have heard heartening stories of families welcoming their wives and daughters home, but in many cases, there is tremendous stigma and shame associated with sexual assault. Some women have become pregnant as a result of the rapes. Some have been overwhelmed by what happened and taken their own lives. All have been traumatized. Yet, resources for critically-needed services in the aftermath of violence are often scarce, and access is obstructed. Last March, the State Department joined with Vital Voices and the Avon Foundation to launch the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative (GBVI), a public-private partnership that provides medical, psychological, and social support as well as shelter and legal assistance. This support is delivered through reproductive healthcare efforts, the creation of women-friendly spaces, mobile clinics, and outreach workers. In Iraq thus far, the initiative has supported more than 50 Yezidi women and girls who escaped captivity.
We also need to look long-term, to the establishment of a rights-respecting society in which women are not just protected but empowered. I gave a speech in Erbil that was broadcast live on state television in northern Iraq, and I was very clear about this: There is a direct connection between the protection of women and their participation in civil life and governance. When we increase the involvement of women in decision-making roles, we decrease opportunities for the violation of their basic human rights. Kurdish women are on the battlefield, risking their lives to defend themselves and their communities from Daesh. If they take up positions of influence and responsibility during times of war, they must be able to take them up during times of peace too. In Iraq, the U.S. Government is providing training for tens of thousands of Iraqi students on rights awareness, violence prevention, and advocacy initiatives to promote legislation on gender equality. And in a related vein, we support campaigns to educate on the dangers of early and forced marriage across the region.
We entered this conflict first and foremost because Daesh threatens our security. But we will conclude it by saving human lives and by ensuring that women and girls can lead lives of dignity in their families, in their communities, and in their government.