Human Rights Watch, 20 February 2017. Fighters from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) are arbitrarily detaining, ill-treating, torturing, and forcibly marrying Sunni Arab women and girls in areas under their control in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today.
Although accounts of gender-based violence have emerged from areas under ISIS control, these are the first cases against Sunni Arab women in Iraq that Human Rights Watch has been able to document.
Researchers interviewed six women in Kirkuk, to which they had escaped from the town of Hawija, 125 kilometers south of Mosul and still under ISIS control. Human Rights Watch and others have extensively documented similar abuses by ISIS fighters against Yezidi women.
“Little is known about sexual abuse against Sunni Arab women living under ISIS rule,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope that the international community and local authorities will do all they can to give this group of victims the support they need.”
In January 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed four women who said they had been detained by ISIS in 2016, for periods between three days and a month. Another woman said an ISIS fighter, her cousin, forced her to marry him and then raped her.
A sixth woman said that ISIS fighters destroyed her home as punishment after her husband escaped ISIS and tried to forcibly marry her. Five of the six women said that ISIS fighters beat them.
One woman said that in April 2016, she tried to escape Hawija with her three children and a large group of other families.
ISIS fighters captured the group and held 50 of the women from the group in an abandoned house. The woman said that over the next month, one fighter raped her daily in front of her children. She suspected that many of the other women held with her were also being raped.
Experts from four international organizations, including two medical organizations, working with survivors of sexual assault in northern Iraq told Human Rights Watch it is difficult to assess the prevalence of ISIS’ gender-based violence against women who have fled territory under their control.
They said that victims and their families remain silent to avoid stigmatization and harm to the woman or girl’s reputation.
One foreign aid worker said she had seen cases mostly of forced marriage and rape, but she believed that very few of the victims in the displaced communities she works with have come forward.
She said some women try to hide the incident from their own families out of fear they will be stigmatized or punished by their relatives or community.
Babies born of rape or forced marriage may also face stigma, she said. Their long-term psychosocial support and medical treatment are particular concerns, she said.
Another aid provider for an international organization providing services at three camps for people displaced from ISIS-controlled territory said their staff had documented 50 cases of women and girls who suffered psychological and physical violence at the hands of ISIS and to whom the organization was providing support.
Several local and international organizations are providing support to victims of gender-based violence.
However, not enough is being done to tackle the stigma around sexual violence, and there is a lack of awareness about appropriate services and psychosocial or mental health support, medical professionals and service providers in Kirkuk said. Available services continue to be outstripped by needs, they said.
A psychiatrist at an international organization providing psychosocial support in one of the larger displaced people’s camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq said that too little has been done to inform men about how to support female victims of gender-based violence.
She said that very often, male relatives will forbid women from getting counseling and vocational training, even if the women want the services.
The women interviewed are all patients at the Kirkuk Center, where a staff of 12 provides psychological and behavioral counseling to women and children. Dr Abd al-Karim Kalyfa, who runs the center, said in January that the center was at that time treating 30 patients, 15 of them children, suffering from trauma related to their experiences living under ISIS.
In 2016, he said, his center treated about 400 patients who had come from ISIS-held territory. ISIS fighters had raped at least two of his current patients, he said.
He knew of one other organization in the Kirkuk area providing services to victims of sexual assault but said there was far too little support available to provide needed mental health care to displaced people who had lived under ISIS.
Another medical professional in Kirkuk who is providing social support to women and children who have been traumatized by their experience under ISIS said that services provided by the federal government focus on pharmacological treatment, not on psychosocial therapy and counseling.
A program manager at an international organization providing services in one of the larger displaced people’s camps in northern Iraq said that the group has been able to create effective safe spaces and start vocational projects for women.
But it has not yet been able to provide more long-term psychosocial support and other services for survivors of gender-based violence, because it is struggling to find female staff with the needed language skills, experience, and professional qualifications.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), together with United Nations agencies and other international humanitarian groups, have struggled to provide the survivors of violence against Yezidi women who escaped ISIS with post-rape care and psychosocial support.
Providing adequate mental health care and psychosocial support is a complex and long-term challenge. The KRG government, Iraqi central government, UN agencies, and others involved need to put in place a coordinated response, based on an assessment of the needs and the most pressing priorities.
The groups should identify key barriers to making care and services accessible, available, and voluntary, and determine the potential cost. Such coordination efforts should include the World Health Organization (WHO) and representatives of the survivors.
WHO has said that mental health services and psychosocial support are essential components of comprehensive care for survivors of sexual violence.
It has also stated that people with mental health conditions and their communities should help develop these services and that those responsible for providing services should strengthen existing resources and make them available in a nondiscriminatory fashion to all.
“ISIS victims of gender-based violence suffer the consequences of their abuse long after they have managed to escape.” Fakih said.
“Their care and rehabilitation requires a multifaceted response, with authorities providing the needed medical and psychosocial support and working to stamp out stigma around sexual violence within the wider community.”
The Kirkuk-based National Institute for Human Rights helped Human Rights Watch by identifying the interviewees and setting up and hosting the interviews. All interviews were conducted with full and informed consent, in Arabic without translation.
We took measures to respect the privacy of survivors and conducted interviews in as private a setting as possible. In all cases, Human Rights Watch took steps to minimize re-traumatization of survivors, stopping interviews if they caused distress. In order to protect victims and witnesses, individual names and other identifying information have been modified or withheld.
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