Omar, a young Yazidi woman, spoke of how she had been captured. “They took me from Iraq. They captured us on the road and said, ‘we won’t do anything bad to you, but you must convert to Islam’. We were afraid to be killed so we converted,” she said.
It did not save them. She was taken to Raqqa, the group’s Syrian “capital”, and after being bought and sold several times as a sex slave she was eventually sold off to marry a Tajik militant.
Today, June 19th June commemorates the breakthrough adoption of the UN Security Council’s resolution from 2008, which recognised sexual violence as a tactic of war and a threat to global peace and security.
In 2015, the day was officially designated as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict and is an annual commemoration which serves as a global call to action for security, justice and service actors on behalf of survivors of sexual violence in conflicts all over the world.
The resolution, co-sponsored by 114 UN member states, aims to raise awareness of the need to end conflict-related sexual violence, to stand in solidarity with the survivors of sexual violence around the world, and to pay tribute to all those working on the front-lines, often at great personal risk, to eradicate this evil. Over the past decade, there has been a paradigm shift in the understanding of the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security.
Dedicating a Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict gives us an opportunity to encourage more focus on this very grave issue. This egregious crime becomes even more appalling when children are the targets of sexual violence. Making victims of teens and those who are even younger strikes at the very heart of any given community and this tactic is deliberately used as a weapon of war. When perpetrators seek out children for sexual violence, they also know that doing so will devastate the entire family, even the entire community.
With regard to children, the African Union has set aside June 17th each year as The Day of the African Child. Children make up a sizeable majority of the population in conflict affected countries in Africa.
Serious abuses and violations of children’s rights in the context of armed conflict is an early indication of a descent or escalation of conflict, as well as one of its consequences. Every year, thousands of boys and girls are killed or maimed, with many others recruited and used by parties of conflict. They are taken from their families, abducted, turned into soldiers, become victims of sexual violence, sometimes trafficked and denied access to humanitarian assistance.
“Children and youth are our most precious asset; yet, they are the most vulnerable. They are being used and abused by parties to conflict in protracted crises and hostilities,” a statement from the African Union said.
In his 2019 message, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said, “Sexual violence in conflict is a threat to our collective security and a stain on our common humanity.
“Its effects can echo across generations, through trauma, stigma, poverty, poor health and unwanted pregnancy. Children conceived through wartime rape often struggle with issues of identity and belonging for decades after the guns have fallen silent.”
Rape victims are more often than not marginalised and shunned, not only by their communities, but by their own families. Even worse is if a rape victim falls pregnant. They suffer stigma, shame and exclusion.
Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently met refugee women from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority who have suffered sexual abuse. Among those she met was a young woman who described how she and her family fled when the Myanmar military arrived, but a soldier caught up with her in the forest and raped her.
No figures are available on the number of Rohingya women who have been raped by Myanmar’s military, but a UN report accused the nation’s armed forces of deliberately using rape “as a weapon of war” against the Rohingya community.
These women and children are sometimes seen as affiliates of armed and violent extremist groups, rather than as victims and survivors.
When Isis overran the Yazidi faith’s heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, the young women were forced into servitude as “wives” for its fighters, as reported by Reuters. Salwa Sayed al-Omar spent years as an Isis prisoner before escaping earlier this year as the terrorist group were fleeing its last populated enclave.
“They took women, abused them and killed them,” said Omar, describing how extremists bought and sold their Yazidi captives or passed them around as sexual slaves.
“A woman was shifted from one man to another unless it was to one who had a bit of mercy... if she was in good condition, she would carry on. If not, she would get married to avoid being abused,” she said.
Therefore, on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we should: amplify the voices of these forgotten victims of war; help their societies re-evaluate their response to the victims of these crimes; and stand ready to bring to justice the perpetrators of these heinous acts.
On June 19th we honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives – sometimes losing them – in the struggle to eradicate these crimes. However, it remains essential to recognise and tackle gender inequality as the root cause and driver of sexual violence, in times of both war and peace.