Sexual Violence as Weapon of War: The ISIS Brand

Uncharted territory, gender fluidity, new positions and places or perhaps a well-rehearsed routine that still manages to bring each partner to the brink of orgasm. Sex can be all things wonderful and transformative. It can be intimate, a sacred bond between two people or a BDSM contract for the more adventurous at heart. It can be an everyday norm, a way to procreate or an escape from the worries of life. Sex can even be a means of survival in the form of a paycheck as a way to pay rent, tuition or make a little extra cash on the side.

Regardless of how you view sex or how comfortable you are talking about it openly with your partner, girlfriends or even casual strangers, it is still one of the most personal forms of self-expression and consent.

But what it should never ever be is a weapon.

For centuries there has been a brutal side to sex. Used as a weapon of intimidation and terror, sex takes the form of individual rape, a way to dehumanize an entire race, sexual genocide, a weapon of war, and an act of group initiation. Sexual violence has had a role in the formation and downfall of every human civilization we have come to know of and even revere. It is a stain that continues to follow mankind throughout history and simultaneously is overlooked or isolated to the past or a single event and conflict. And that is how we as an international community fail.

Customary Evil_StatisticA World of Rape

Repugnant regardless of setting, sex used as a weapon of war and cultural and religious degradation and eradication is particularly heinous. The prevalent use of it in recent conflicts (Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, South Sudan, DRC, and Central America) should not be viewed as a singular issue specific to that one nation but a global one. Not only are women and girls victims but men and boys fall victim to it as well. Sexual violence is often cited as one of the primary forces driving people to flee their homes; joining the current 52 million refugees and IDPs in the world. In a UNHCR 2014 report, 70% of children crossing the U.S. border from Mexico and Central America cited domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence at the hands of the cartels and the state as reasons for coming to the U.S.

Often people choose to concentrate on the so-called economic “pull factors” as the driving reason for the influx of new groups of people in developed nations. This misses the point. Sexual and political violence determine much of the insecurity people suffer in regions and nations that are undergoing conflict or have institutionalized discriminatory practices. The threat of physical violence and the psychological torture in knowing that often law enforcement and political officials will either turn a blind eye or outwardly condone and encourage is an extremely powerful motivator for flight.

In a recent New York Times article, ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape, author Rukmini Callimachi takes an in depth look at one of the newest forms of sexual violence – rape as religious worship and ritual and institutional right. The trade and rape of Yazidi women and girls has become an enshrined practice and effective recruiting tool by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Instead of being gifted to fighters as spoils of war, the women and girls are traded and contracted like prized cattle; sold to the highest bidder and treated as personal property. They are cataloged and shipped from camp to camp as marketable goods until bought and registered with the Islamic State. Callimachi points out that the level of pre-planning, meticulous record keeping, and PR efforts by the Islamic State’s leadership caught many activists off guard. She cites University of Chicago expert, Matthew Barber, as stating that the “offensive on the mountain (first formal introduction of their sexual slavery practices, Mount Sinjar, August 2014) was as much a sexual conquest as it was for territorial gain.”

What we are witnessing is sexual violence being used as a tactical military and political weapon and religious rite of passage. It is being used as a means to fuel a religious war and has been incorporated into strategic assaults on villages and entire regions in which impunity is given and international aid agencies and organizations are ill-equipped to combat. We chose to ignore the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the political mess we left in Iraq. The byproduct of these two failures is a sex trade intensely violent in nature but modeled as a shrewd business venture.

My hope is that just as our predecessors fought together to eradicate the African slave trade across continents and within our own democratic system, so too will our international partners come together to fight this new form of trade-based sexual violence. To continue to turn a blind eye is nothing short of shameful.

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