“Luna,” was captured by ISIS fighters when they swept through northern Iraq in August 2014. She was sold four times and raped by all her “owners.” She was one of hundreds of Yezidi women and girls who had similar experiences.
Some of them eventually escaped and were reunited with their community, who took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. But that wasn’t the end of their ordeal.
Survivors my colleague and I interviewed, described organized rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS. They were in dire need of health care, counselling and other services to help them begin to recover from their ordeal.
Kurdistan officials took their needs seriously, but subjected some unmarried women and girls to “virginity tests” –an abusive and inaccurate procedure-- as part of a forensic, post-rape examination. Judge Ayman Bamerny, who heads a committee gathering evidence of ISIS crimes, told us these tests were seen as evidence of rape by Iraqi courts.
This week the judge told another colleague of mine that the committee has stopped referring Yezidi survivors for “virginity tests.” He said the health directorate in Dohuk adopted a new medical examination report on sexual violence based on UN recommendations, consistent with human rights and best practice. The chief judge of Dohuk agreed to accept these reports for legal proceedings, he said.
The World Health Organization has stated definitively that “virginity tests” have no scientific validity. They are based on a commonly held but inaccurate belief that all women and girls who are virgins have intact hymens that bleed on first intercourse. As such they are ineffective for determining whether a woman or girl has been raped.
This is an important step for women and girls like “Luna” who can now pursue justice for the crimes against them in a process that shows deeper respect for women’s rights and a commitment to providing better care for rape survivors.
As officials work toward proper forensic examinations of rape survivors, they should ensure that all women and girls in Iraq who were subject to sexual violence are treated with dignity and respect.