Members of an Iraqi family fleeing from Mosul seek shelter in primary school in the village of Alqosh. Photo credit: UNHCR / S. Baldwin, June 2014.
In recent weeks, the situation in Iraq has rapidly deteriorated, with extremist militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now controlling much of the north and western regions of Iraq. As the conflict escalates, it becomes evident that women are not only on the front lines, but are the battleground on which the ISIS forces are waging war. The untold story, however, is that women are not just the victims, but also the first responders to violence.
As men are called to arms to defend the fragile state, women are left to protect their families, homes and communities against the insurgencies. As is common to most conflict zones, women are subsequently saddled with the responsibility for the young, elderly, wounded and sick. Over the past 4 weeks as the conflict has worsened, over 300 000 refugees, including women and children, have fled their homes out of fear of the ISIS insurgency and a looming threat of airstrikes. In the midst of the chaos, women are increasingly vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), in a country where many have struggled, over the years, to hold perpetrators accountable.
Immediately after seizing Iraq’s second-largest city in northern Iraq, ISIS troops began imposing their fundamentalist agenda on the people of Mosul, ordering women to cover themselves and retreat to their homes. Shortly after their arrival, reports of kidnapping and rape began to surface, a frightening indication of the faction’s strategy of imposing their extremist agenda on women’s bodies.
According to a statement from the UNFPA, over 20 000 women and girls in Iraq are currently facing an increased risk of sexual violence. These estimates however appear modest when considering the severity of the violence that has already been inflicted on women and girls in ISIS-occupied regions and stigma attached to sexual violence which makes it less likely to be reported.. Heavily armed fighters stormed the homes of Mosul, declaring a “sex jihad” in which women who were “not owned” could be abducted and raped by ISIS troops. In the early weeks of June, human rights defenders reported 13 of these cases, 4 of which have led the victims to suicide as a result of the trauma and shame.