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Women and Girls Who Escaped ISIS Describe Systematic Rape and Forced Marriage

Women and Girls Who Escaped ISIS Describe Systematic Rape and Forced Marriage

By Caitlin Moscatello

Twelve-year-old Jalila (who's name has been changed for her safety) says her nightmare began when men from her village near Sinjar, Iraq, handed her and her family over to ISIS fighters as the family was trying to flee the area. Jalila was eventually separated from her loved ones and taken to a house in Syria where other abducted young women were being kept. "The men would come and select us," she told Human Rights Watch. "When they came, they would tell us to stand up and then examine our bodies. They would tell us to show our hair and sometimes they beat the girls if they refused." One time, an ISIS fighter slapped her and dragged her body outside of the house as she begged him not to touch her. "I told him to take me to my mother," she said. "I was a young girl, and I asked him, 'What do you want from me?' He spent three days having sex with me." Jalila managed to escape her attackers but not soon enough: Before she was able to get away, she had been "owned" by seven ISIS fighters, whether by being sold or given as a "gift," and raped on multiple occasions by four of the men.

These are just some of the disturbing details outlined in a report by Human Rights Watch released this week, which includes interviews with 20 Yezidi women and girls who managed to escape from ISIS. (The United Nations estimates that roughly 3,000 Yezidis are still being held by ISIS.) During the interviews, which took place in January and February of this year in the Iraqi town of Dohuk, survivors described being raped and forced into sexual slavery. Medical workers, local officials, and community leaders were also interviewed as part of the group's research. 

"ISIS forces have committed organized rape, sexual assault, and other horrific crimes against Yezidi women and girls," said Liesl Gerntholtz, women's rights director at Human Rights Watch, in a released statement. "Those fortunate enough to have escaped need to be treated for the unimaginable trauma they endured."

The findings echo those of a UN report, which also included anecdotal evidence from women who had been sexually abused by ISIS militants. In an ISIS manual titled "Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves," the rape of non-Muslim female captives—even children—is stated to be permissible, as is buying, selling, and giving women and girls to other men. 

Wafa, another 12-year-old who escaped ISIS, and whose name has also been changed for her protection, described being told by an older fighter that she would not be raped. "He was sleeping in the same place with me and told me not be afraid because I was like his daughter," she said. "One day I woke up and my legs were covered in blood." Wafa's parents, brothers, and sisters are still missing.

Twenty-year-old Dilara spoke about the fear of being assaulted after watching other women being dragged away by ISIS fighters. She told interviewers that her captors took her and about 60 other Yezidi women to a wedding hall in Syria, where they were told they would be forced to marry ISIS members and have their children. "From 9:30 in the morning, men would come to buy girls to rape them. I saw in front of my eyes ISIS soldiers pulling hair, beating girls, and slamming the heads of anyone who resisted. They were like animals," said Dilara. "Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls' ages ranged from eight to 30 years...only 20 girls remained in the end."

Other women told Human Rights Watch about being forced to marry ISIS fighters, including a 23-year-old who did her best to convince her captors that she was already married in the hopes that they would think she was not a virgin and not want her. Despite her attempt, she was taken to Syria for marriage. "The other girls with me said it's forbidden to marry married women," she said. "He replied, 'But not if they are Yezidi women.'"

To avoid being raped, some of the survivors said they considered suicide—or had witnessed other girls and women attempt to take their own lives to not have to endure being tortured by ISIS fighters. One woman identified as Rashida, 31, in the report recounted trying to poison herself when she realized she was about to be sexually assaulted:

Later that day they [ISIS fighters] made a lottery of our names and started to choose women by drawing out the names. The man who selected me, Abu Ghufran, forced me to bathe, but while I was in the bathroom I tried to kill myself. I had found some poison in the house, and took it with me to the bathroom. I knew it was toxic because of its smell. I distributed it to the rest of the girls and we each mixed some with water in the bathroom and drank it. None of us died, but we all got sick. Some collapsed. 

In order to ensure that the families of escaped victims will accept them back into their communities—there remains an unfair stigma against women who have been sexually assaulted—a Yezidi religious leader issued a statement saying that survivors "remain pure Yezidis" and that "no one may injure their Yezidi faith because they were subjected to a matter outside of their control." The hope is that victims will be reintegrated into their communities and given protection as well as physical and psychological treatment. Ismail Ali, director general for combating violence against women for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), stated that shelters should be provided for survivors returning to their communities, specifically for women "who are at risk of violence from their families." Job training, as provided by one organization teaching sewing courses to women in survivor camps, could also help. As one 18-year-old survivor said, "What I want more than anything is to work, so I can keep my mind off everything that happened."

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