A UN envoy has returned from a tour of Iraq and Syria with harrowing reports of the sexual violence systematically committed by Islamic State militants against women and girls.
Zainab Bangura, who had set out for the region in April to address the rampant cases of rape, sex slavery and other sexual violence in the areas under IS control, said the extremists were “institutionalizing sexual violence” as a tactic to terrorize the local populations.
In an interview this week with the Middle East Eye, a UK-based news site, Bangura recounted chilling tales she had heard from refugees.
“After attacking a village, IS splits women from men and executes boys and men aged 14 and over. The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold,” she said.
“There is a hierarchy: sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat-chested or unattractive.
“We heard one case of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform an extreme sex act,” she said.
The plight of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority has raised alarm after hundreds captured by Islamic State fighters were sold in open markets as sex slaves last year.
Bangura explained that the atrocities were not being committed randomly by individual militants but were a key tactic used by the group “to advance key strategic priorities, such as recruitment, fundraising, to enforce discipline and order — through the punishment of dissenters or family members — and to advance their radical ideology.”
A recent UN report noted a “significant increase” in the number of cases of sexual violence in Syria with abductees from Iraq being sold in markets in IS-controlled areas of Syria.
Over recent months, some 1,500 civilians including many Yazidi women and children may have been forced into sexual slavery, the report said.
She said she and her team had “struggled to understand the mentality of people who commit such crimes…It was painful for me.”
Bangura was appointed as special envoy three years ago to focus international attention on sexual crimes, long been considered a by-product of war.
“The countries I have worked on include Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Central African Republic; I never saw anything like this. I cannot understand such inhumanity. I was sick, I couldn’t understand,” she said.
The UN envoy added that support mechanisms for escaped victims were limited.
“They do get support from their families, communities and the government, but the needs are huge…(they) need qualified medical and psycho-social support that is not readily available,” she said.
“For its part, the UN is supporting and sheltering the affected population, but everyone agrees that assistance needs to be scaled up.”
AFP contributed to this report.