(New York) – The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls in northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.
Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. Many of the women and girls remain missing, but the survivors now in Iraqi Kurdistan need psychosocial support and other assistance.
“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. “Those fortunate enough to have escaped need to be treated for the unimaginable trauma they endured.”
Researcher Interview: These Yezidi girls escaped ISIS. Now what?
ISIS forces took several thousand Yezidi civilians into custody in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province in August 2014, according to Kurdistan officials and community leaders. Witnesses said that fighters systematically separated young women and adolescent girls from their families and other captives and moved them from one location to another inside Iraq and Syria.
The 11 women and 9 girls Human Rights Watch interviewed had escaped between September 2014 and January 2015. Half, including two 12-year-old girls, said they had been raped – some multiple times and by several ISIS fighters. Nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as “gifts.” The women and girls also witnessed other captives being abused.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than a dozen international and local service providers, medical workers, Kurdish officials, community leaders, and activists who corroborated these accounts. A local doctor treating female survivors in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that of the 105 women and girls she had examined, 70 appeared to have been raped in ISIS captivity.
All of the women and girls interviewed exhibited signs of acute emotional distress. Many remain separated from relatives and sometimes their entire families, who were either killed by ISIS or remain in ISIS captivity. Several said they had attempted suicide during their captivity or witnessed suicide attempts to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion.
In October 2014, ISIS acknowledged in its publication Dabiq that its fighters had given captured Yezidi women and girls to its fighters as “spoils of war.” ISIS has sought to justify sexual violence claiming that Islam permits sex with non-Muslim “slaves,” including girls, as well as beating and selling them. The statements are further evidence of a widespread practice and a systematic plan of action by ISIS, Human Rights Watch said.
ISIS commanders should immediately release all civilian detainees, reunite children with their families, and end forced marriages and religious conversions, Human Rights Watch said. They should take all necessary action to end rape and other sexual violence by ISIS fighters. International and local actors who have influence with ISIS should press the group to take these actions.
In 2014 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) absorbed more than 637,000 displaced people from Nineveh province alone, and made significant efforts to provide health and other services to Yezidi women and girls who have escaped ISIS. However, there have been flaws and gaps in health care, Human Rights Watch said. Some of those interviewed said they underwent medical tests but did not know the purpose and were never told the results.
The director general for health in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that local authorities had identified fewer than 150 women and girls who had escaped from ISIS and that only about 100 had received medical treatment. According to the KRG Directorate of Yezidi Affairs, 974 Yezidis had escaped ISIS as of March 15, 2015, including 513 women and 304 children.
The women and girls need trauma support and ongoing counselling, Human Rights Watch said. Not all had immediate access to treatment for injuries; emergency contraception; safe and legal abortion services, including sexual and reproductive health access; and psychosocial support.
KRG authorities should try to close gaps in medical care and psychosocial support for the Yezidi girls and women and ensure that doctors provide survivors with results of tests they undergo and information on the services available to them, Human Rights Watch said. The KRG should also develop a plan to assist children born from rape to ensure adequate services and protection for them and their mothers. In addition, the KRG should invest in employment skills training and livelihood schemes to help reintegrate women into daily life.
“Yezidi women and girls who escaped ISIS still face enormous challenges and continuing trauma from their experience,” Gerntholtz said. “They need urgent help and support to recover their health and move on with their lives.”
ISIS Violations of International Law
Abduction and Detention
Since ISIS attacks in and around Sinjar began on August 3, 2014, more than 736,000 Iraqis, primarily Yezidis and other religious minorities, fled their homes in Nineveh province, most to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the International Organization for Migration. ISIS fighters executed hundreds of male Yezidi civilians and then abducted their relatives, the United Nations and local and international human rights organizations reported. A recent UN report stated that further investigation is needed to establish the number of those held captive or killed by ISIS, which is “estimated to be in the thousands.”
Although several hundred Yezidis have since escaped, according to KRG officials, many are still in captivity in various parts of Iraq and Syria. Escaped abductees that Human Rights Watch interviewed said ISIS is holding Yezidis in multiple locations across northern Iraq, including Mosul, Tal Afar, Tal Banat, Ba’aj, Rambusi, and Sinjar, and in areas it controls in eastern Syria, including Raqqa and Rabi’a. They said that ISIS is holding female captives, including girls, in houses, hotels, factories, farm compounds, schools, prisons, military bases, and former government offices.
Young women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters first separated them from men and boys and older women. The fighters moved the women and girls several times in an organized and methodical fashion to various places in Iraq and Syria. While most of the ISIS fighters appeared to be Syrian or Iraqi, survivors said that some of their abusers told them that they came from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including from Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as from Europe and Central Asia.
The precise number of Yezidis still captive is unknown because of continuing fighting in Iraq and Syria and because significant numbers of Yezidis fled to areas across Iraq and neighboring countries when ISIS attacked. On March 13, 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in its report that about 3,000 people, mainly Yezidis, allegedly remain in ISIS captivity. Local officials, service providers, and community activists estimate that the number of Yezidis still held is much higher.
In September 2014, a Yezidi group provided Human Rights Watch with a database with 3,133 names and ages of Yezidis they said ISIS had kidnapped or killed, or who had been missing since the ISIS assaults of early August. The database was based on interviews with displaced Yezidis in Iraqi Kurdistan. The group said that as of late March 2015, the number of dead, abducted, and missing Yezidis had risen to 5,324.
Sexual Violence and Other Abuse
The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described repeated rape, sexual violence, and other abuse in ISIS captivity.
Jalila (all survivors’ names have been changed for their security), age 12, said that Arab men whom she recognized from her village north of Sinjar accosted her and seven family members on August 3, 2014, as they were trying to flee ISIS. The men handed the family over to ISIS fighters, who separated Jalila, her sister, sister-in-law, and infant nephew from the other family members and took them to Tal Afar. Later, the fighters took Jalila and her sister to Mosul. Thirty-five days later they separated Jalila from her sister and took her to a house in Syria that housed other abducted young Yezidi women and girls. Jalila said:
The men would come and select us. 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. They wore dishdashas [ankle length garments], and had long beards and hair.
She said that the ISIS fighter who selected her slapped her and dragged her out of the house when she resisted. “I told him not to touch me and begged him to let me go,” she said. “I told him to take me to my mother. I was a young girl, and I asked him, ‘What do you want from me?’ He spent three days having sex with me.”
Jalila said that during her captivity, seven ISIS fighters “owned” her, and four raped her on multiple occasions: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my hands and legs.”
Another 12-year-old, Wafa, told Human Rights Watch that in August ISIS fighters abducted her with her family from the village of Kocho. The men took the family to a school in Tal Afar filled with other Yezidi captives, where the fighters separated her from her family. From there they took her to several locations within Iraq and then to Raqqa, in Syria. An older fighter assured Wafa that she would not be harmed but he repeatedly raped her nevertheless, she said.
“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 escaped three months after her abduction, but her parents, three brothers, and sister are still missing.
The women and girls who said that they had not been raped said they endured constant stress and anxiety when witnessing the suffering of other women, fearing they would be next.
Dilara, 20, said ISIS fighters took her to a wedding hall in Syria, where she saw about 60 other Yezidi female captives. ISIS fighters told the group to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children, God will convert you to Islam and you will pray.” She told Human Rights Watch she lived in constant fear that she would be dragged away like so many women and girls before her:
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…. Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years… only 20 girls remained in the end.
Two sisters, Rana, 25, and Sara, 21, said they could do nothing to stop the abuse of their 16-year-old sister by four men over several months. The sister was allowed to visit them and told them that the first man who raped her, whom she described as a European, also beat her, handcuffed her, gave her electric shocks, and denied her food. She told them another fighter later raped her for a month and then gave her to an Algerian for another month. The last time they saw her was when a Saudi ISIS fighter took her. “We don’t know anything about her since,” Sara said. The two sisters said they were also raped multiple times by two men, one of whom said he was from Russia and the other from Kazakhstan.
Some women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters beat them if they resisted or defied them in any way.
Zara, 13, said that ISIS fighters accused her and two other girls of desecrating a Quran while holding the girls captive on a farm. “They punished the three of us by taking us to the garden and tying our hands with wire,” she said. “We were blindfolded and they said they would kill us if we didn’t say who had done this. They beat us for 10 minutes and they fired a bullet in the air.”
Leila, 25, managed to escape from the house where she was held captive, but because she was behind ISIS lines, she realized she was trapped and felt compelled to return. The commander, an Iraqi, asked her why she had tried to escape. She said she replied: “Because what you are doing to us is haram [forbidden] and un-Islamic.” He beat her with a cable and also punished the guard who had failed to prevent her escape attempt. The guard beat her as well. “Since then, my mental state has become very bad and I’ve had fainting spells,” she said.
Women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters told them they had been bought for as much as US$2,000 from other ISIS members.
In some instances, ISIS fighters forcibly married their Yezidi captives rather than buy them. Narin, 20, said that when a fighter named Abu Du’ad brought her to his home, his wife left in protest. He brought a religious judge to perform a marriage ceremony but Narin refused to participate. Abu Du’ad persisted by trying to get permission from Narin’s family and called her brother in Germany. “But [my brother] said no to the marriage and offered to pay $50,000 for my release,” Narin said. “Abu Du’ad said no.”
Nadia, 23, said she was separated from the men in her family when ISIS fighters abducted them in her village near Sinjar in August. She tried to convince the ISIS fighters that she was married to escape being raped, because she had heard that ISIS fighters preferred virgins. However, after they took her to Syria, one of the men said that he would marry her. “The other girls with me said it’s forbidden to marry married women,” Nadia said. “He replied, ‘But not if they are Yezidi women.’”
ISIS has publicly acknowledged enslaving women and children. In an article entitled “The revival of slavery before the hour” in Dabiq, the group’s online English-language magazine, ISIS said it was reviving a custom justified under Sharia (Islamic law):
After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [a tax on war spoils].
A question-and-answer document, issued by what appears to be ISIS’s Research and Fatwa Department, states:
It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of.… It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.… It is permissible to beat the female slave as a [form of] darb ta'deeb [disciplinary beating].
The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described their own suicide attempts or attempts of others as a way to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion. They described cutting their wrists with glass or razors, attempting to hang themselves, trying to electrocute themselves in bathtubs, and consuming what they thought was poison.
Rashida, 31, managed to speak to one of her brothers after her abduction by secretly using a fighter’s phone. She told her brother that ISIS fighters were forcing her to convert and then to marry. He told her he would try to help her but if he couldn’t, “I should commit suicide because it would be better than the alternative.” Rashida said:
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.
Leila said she saw two girls try to kill themselves by slashing their wrists with broken glass. She also tried to commit suicide when her Libyan captors forced her to take a bath, which she knew was typically a prelude to rape:
I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, stood on a chair to take the wire connecting the light to electrocute myself but there was no electricity. After they realized what I was doing, they beat me with a long piece of wood and with their fists. My eyes were swollen shut and my arms turned blue. They handcuffed me to the sink, and cut my clothes with a knife and washed me. They took me out of the bathroom, brought in [my friend] and raped her in the room in front of me.
Leila said she was later raped. She said she tried to commit suicide again and showed Human Rights Watch the scars on her wrists where she cut herself with a razor.
About half the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the ISIS fighters pressured them to convert to Islam. Zara, 13, said she was held captive in a three-story house in Mosul with girls ages 10 to 15:
When they came to select the girls, they would pull them away. The girls would cry and faint, they would have to take them by force. They made us convert to Islam and we all had to say the shahada [Islamic creed]. They said, “You Yezidis are kufar [infidels], you must repeat these words after the leader.” They gathered us all in one place and made us repeat after him. After we said the shahada, he said you have now been converted to our religion and our religion is the correct one. We didn’t dare not say the shahada.
ISIS fighters held Noor, 16, in various places including Mosul. “The leader of this group asked us to convert to Islam and read the Quran,” she said. “We were forced to read the Quran and we started to pray slowly. We started to behave like actors.”
War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity
Rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, cruel treatment, and other abuses committed during an armed conflict violate the laws of war. International criminal courts have ruled that rape and other sexual violence may also amount to torture.
Those who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes. Commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
The mass rape and other serious abuses by ISIS against Yezidi civilians may be crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity are serious offenses, including rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, unlawful imprisonment, persecution of a religious group, and other inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, that are part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population.
“Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or the number of victims. “Systematic” concerns “a pattern or methodical plan.” ISIS public statements concerning enslavement, forced marriage, and abuse of captured women, as well as the organized sale of Yezidi women and girls, indicate a widespread practice and a systematic plan of action by ISIS.
Provision of Health Services
KRG authorities have made significant efforts to provide health and other services to Yezidi women and girls and have designated a health committee in Dohuk to coordinate the identification and referral of survivors to services. The director general for health in Dohuk, Dr. Nezhar Ismet Taib, who heads the committee, said that some families do not wish to reveal that their female relatives were abducted and this has made it difficult for the committee to identify and support those in need.
Almost all of the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they had received medical examinations. A local doctor said the medical tests included blood tests for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. In some cases, medical workers provided emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, as recommended by the World Health Organization.
It is not clear that doctors have always obtained informed consent before conducting examinations. Narin, the 20-year-old woman from Sinjar, told Human Rights Watch that she was abducted on August 3 and given as a “gift” to an ISIS fighter, who tried to force her to marry him:
I wasn’t raped – [the ISIS member] didn’t touch me because I told him I was sick.… I got a forensic gynecological exam in Dohuk, which cleared me of abuse. I wasn’t comfortable during this exam, and [the doctor] didn’t explain what she was doing to me beforehand.
Those who take the medical tests do not always receive the test results. The two sisters, Rana and Sara, said that they spent five months in ISIS captivity and that ISIS fighters raped them multiples times. They said that soon after they escaped in December they received medical treatment and tests, but six weeks later, they had still not received any test results.Eighteen-year-old Arwa, from Kocho, managed to escape in December after ISIS fighters raped her. She told Human Rights Watch that she was still waiting for her test results seven weeks later.
Local authorities should ensure that health workers inform women and girls of the purpose of each test and that they consent to each procedure. The World Health Organization has provided guidelines for carrying out such tests and obtaining informed consent.
Withholding test results, whether positive or negative, can compound women’s and girls’ fears about the state of their health. Health workers should ensure that there is follow up for such women and girls, including providing test results and any further treatment and information they need.
Psychosocial support for women and girls who escaped ISIS is a crucial service that is largely lacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the women and girls interviewed showed signs of trauma. Jalila, the 12-year-old raped by four ISIS fighters, said she “can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me. I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better, I don’t want to be captured again.” She had not received professional counselling.
Sixteen-year-old Noor told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters abducted her on August 3 from Tal Afar and held her until September, when she escaped. An ISIS fighter raped her multiple times over a period of five days, she said. In the first two months after her return, she said she remained traumatized and cried most of the time.
Noor did manage to get psychosocial support. A local activist arranged for her to visit a psychotherapist in the hospital three or four times and visited her frequently to encourage her to get regular psychosocial counselling. Noor was undergoing regular psychosocial treatment as well as attending a handicrafts course and leaving the camp for social activities with activists from local organizations.
However, representatives of international agencies and nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch that there was not only a lack of available psychosocial support, but also reluctance by the community to accept such help. One activist said that he had to visit girls and their guardians repeatedly to encourage the girls to participate in psychosocial counselling before they would agree.
Several of those Human Rights Watch interviewed stated that they would like to receive psychosocial therapy. Narin, the 20-year-old from Sinjar, said:
No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counselling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.
International and local groups agreed that there are not enough psychosocial therapists available to the women and girls to meet the need, given the number of escaped women and girls and the prospect of more to come.
Dr. Taib told Human Rights Watch that although he was not aware of any suicides of women or girls who had escaped, many were suicidal. He said that women and girls who sought treatment with local officials were assessed by a psychologist at the same time they received medical treatment. The health team designated to help Yezidi women and girls has two psychologists and two psychosocial therapists but plans to increase the number of psychosocial therapists to ten. In addition, some groups and international agencies are providing psychosocial support. A psychosocial therapist at Jian Centre for Human Rights said she and her colleague had provided support to 20 Yezidi women and girls who had escaped.
In the short term, psychologists and social workers, particularly those who speak the local Yezidi dialect, need training on counselling methods. This should be in addition to recruiting psychosocial therapists to deal with the urgent cases. More efforts are also needed to encourage and educate people who might need the services about how the services can help them.
Pregnancy and Children Born as a Result of Rape
The KRG has no comprehensive plan for addressing pregnancies or children born from rape. Dr. Taib told Human Rights Watch that the local health committee had agreed that the authorities should protect women who keep their children, including providing shelter for them and their children as well as prenatal and maternal health care. In cases where the women do not want to care for their children, personal status courts will have to make decisions about the welfare of the child.
Where the child’s biological mother and close family relinquish or abandon the child, or are unable to provide adequate care, the authorities should ensure appropriate alternative care, with or through competent local authorities and authorized nongovernmental groups. In cases in which the child’s biological mother and close family do not relinquish the child, authorities should direct efforts first at enabling the child to remain in the mother’s care, or when appropriate, the care of other close family members unless it is not in the child’s best interests. If women do choose to raise the children, there should be a plan for providing them with assistance, including psychosocial and financial support.
Officials should ensure that information about services is available to women and girls and can be accessed confidentially.
Abortion is illegal in Iraq. Local officials told Human Rights Watch that it is not permitted in the Kurdistan region even for rape cases unless a doctor considers it a medical necessity, such as a risk to the mother’s life. The KRG should urgently clarify for healthcare providers the circumstances in which they may legally perform abortions for women and girls who have escaped from ISIS captivity, including for women and girls at risk of suicide or “honor”-related violence. The Iraqi government should also urgently consider amending the penal code to allow safe and legal abortions for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence.
In addition, KRG officials should encourage religious and community leaders to welcome children born from rape if the mothers freely choose to raise them in the Yezidi community and to provide the social support the women need.
Stigma and Reintegration
Baba Sheikh, a Yezidi religious leader, issued a statement on September 6 welcoming escaped women back into the community and stating that no one should harm them. On February 6, 2015, he reissued the appeal, saying:
These survivors remain pure Yezidis and no one may injure their Yezidi faith because they were subjected to a matter outside their control.… We therefore call on everyone to cooperate with and support these victims so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society.
These statements appear to have helped protect Yezidi women and girls from harm and have encouraged their families to seek treatment for them.
Ismail Ali, the KRG director general for combating violence against women in Dohuk, told Human Rights Watch that officials were not aware of any Yezidi girl or woman at risk from her family since returning, but should there be such cases, a shelter is available for them. In addition, authorities should provide programs that guarantee long-term rehabilitation and housing solutions for all women victims of violence who do not have the support of their families or who are under threat, and training for officials, local activists, and social and health workers to identify cases of women who are at risk of violence from their families. The authorities should also, in coordination with religious and community officials, raise awareness and provide education, particularly for men and boys, to prevent violence against women.
In addition, investment in skills training and livelihood schemes would help to reintegrate women into daily life. One organization is providing sewing and arts-and-crafts courses in the camps.
Many women and girls said that they wanted jobs so that they could financially assist their families. They also said that having nothing to do in the camps and being surrounded by family members who are also traumatized increased or exacerbated their own trauma.
Arwa, an 18-year-old from Kocho, said, “What I want more than anything is to work, so I can keep my mind off everything that happened.”
The Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI), a German-Iraqi nongovernmental organization, is seeking funding to build a center where Yezidi women and girls can get skills training. Women and girls who escaped ISIS told Human Rights Watch that they would use such a facility. WADI case workers have taken some of these women and girls out of the camps for social activities, which appeared to help occupy them and provide a semblance of a normal life.