ISIS Sex Slavery: Is Sexual Violence a Necessary Precondition of Conflict?

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Sexual violence is a common and frequent occurrence in times of war, conflict and uprisings.

The correlation is omnipresent as demonstrated in various wars and civil unrest throughout history, but what is the motivation behind sexual violence? Is it simply a chosen behaviour by individual troops, or is this a systematic tactic inherent in war? The United Nations office specialising in sexual violence in conflict released a statement last month stating that such violations are “a natural outcome of oppression, depravity and a desire for control”.

This report was in response to Amnesty International’s investigation revealing the treatment of the minority Yazidi community. The report, Escape from Hell, detailed the extreme sexual violence the women and girls are forced to endure by ISIS. It specified the systematic rape and imprisonment of the girls: forcing them into either arranged marriages, selling them on sex slave markets or distributing them to brothels for the benefit of ISIS fighters. Amnesty International is working closely alongside WHO and the United Nations to assist the aid for victims however, the report failed to address the recurring theme of sexual violence in conflict and more importantly, how to break this continuing pattern of behaviour.

The situation in Iraq and Syria, although prevalent in recent news, is not the only example. Columbian society remains to be rebuilt following horrific systematic and brutal sexual violence in the recent conflict in Chocó. This prolonged conflict, war and civil unrest was a product of the tensions between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. The FARC and other Colombian guerrilla groups fought to protect the interests of the poor from governmental violence and exploitation. Despite this strong political message of undue governmental power, both official armed troops and guerrilla fighters have been accused of using sexual violence against civilian women and children as an instrument of war.

The situation in Chocó amplifies the gravity of such a crime as a commonly deployed tacticLegislation was passed in 2014 clarifying sexual violence in the context of conflict as a crime against humanity. The United Nations posted a moving statement on this development stating that the victims were now able to rebuild their lives with dignity, and actually have their experiences defined as a crime rather than simply barbaric behaviour with no ability for legal redress. This statement provided optimism and hope for victims with the introduction of entrepreneur schemes and employability workshops to reinstate a deprived voice. However, it too failed to address how to prevent sexual violence in the course of conflict.

Rape as a war tactic

For those unfamiliar with the situation in the Congo, and the use of sexual violence for the control of ‘blood minerals’ contained and used in mobile phones, this video was created to familiarise audiences with the theme of rape and its use in war. It reveals the impact such violence has on families and communities, it is a harrowing watch, but a valuable insight into the everyday use of sexual violence by members of an army or funded body against civilians. The Congo particularly engaged in the war tactic of rape, using it to frustrate and damage communities causing widespread feelings of fear, hopelessness and vulnerability. Evidently, in situations such as this it is a tactic of asserting dominance, power and control.

Trigger warning: rape and sexual violence

https://youtu.be/7iCTYfBzXY0

The business model – profit and economics

The slave trade is inherently abusive. It is based upon the exploitation, physical exhaustion and psychological torture of its workers by removing all rights and freedoms owed to them, ultimately depriving them of their status as a human being. Slavery itself is concerned with generating profit, and was a useful way to sustain the wealth of the rich, and an effective way of providing the less fortunate with free labour; increasing the income of profit for food and other expenses without the need to pay workers. The use of slavery was, and is still, a business mechanism under the common “supply and demand” ethos. The purchasing and selling of humans is a profitable market under this model, and therefore used to generate substantial profit. With human trafficking being regarded as the modern day form of slavery and involuntary servitude, specialist Anne Gallagher has stated this is because “slavetrackers have rediscovered how profitable it is to buy and sell people.” This is particularly useful in the context of conflict and war, whereby the profit sustained from the sexual exploitation of women is able to generate a stable, continuous and reliable source of income for war effort. Money derived from trading sex slaves within certain regimes has contributed to the purchase of armour, guns and explosives for fighters, as well as the access to aid and resources to maintain the troops during air strikes.

Religious and cultural traditions – the enforcement of an inferior social status

The abusive, exploitative, violent and dehumanising nature of sexual violence is often simply to reaffirm the inferiority of certain minority groups, in particular women, as enforced under strict religious and cultural teachings. The role of women in the views of extremist groups such as the Islamic State is one of oppression and victimisation, and revolves around the ideology that women have little to offer society besides what they can offer men. There is no opportunity for education pursuance outside of these teachings. This restricts the possibility of growth and further development of women, confining them to the domesticated sphere. Sexual violence is strongly linked with this objectification, and is another example of how women are victims of their own body: to be a woman is to be restrained, both physically and mentally.

Ultimately, no violence whether sexual or non-sexual is ever necessary, but the correlation between conflict and sexual violence cannot be ignored. It is difficult to intervene in such a practice due to the culturally contextual nature of each conflict. The most effective remedy for victims is to provide them with the means to access education and work. This enables them to reconstruct their lives without stigmatisation or shame. Sexual violence and human trafficking is present in even the most advanced countries, such as the USA, which estimated a trafficking of 14,500 people in 2013 alone in the annual Polaris Project report, and therefore is not necessarily confined to states of depravity within a war context. Nonetheless, the biggest issue we have to face is that the horrors these victims have endured is because our society has created a demand for it.

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Third year law student with an interest in criminal and international law, particularly the criminalisation of sexuality (paraphilia; BDSM; prostitution; consent; and HIV transmissions). My research encompasses viewpoints ranging from legal theory and literature to the wider political, social and cultural framework in which criminalisation works within.

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