Escalating Sexual Violence in Extremist Conflicts


Escalating Sexual Violence in Extremist Conflicts

12 Aug 2015

New reports from US Institute of Peace and Human Rights Watch analyse the increasing role sexual violence has as a tactic for extremist groups. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics draws out the key points.

There has been an increase of sexual violence in conflicts involving religious extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram in recent years. Research is increasingly demonstrating that sexual violence is becoming a central tactic of some extremist groups, who utilise it to advance the group's aims and to instill fear in victims and victimised communities.

Several recent reports analyse sexual violence in conflict, specifically by violent extremist groups. Including two US Institute of Peace (USIP) reports ' Conflict and Extremist-Related Sexual Violence' and ' Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment,' and a Human Rights Watch (HRW) brief ' A Long Way Home: Life for the Women Rescued from Boko Haram.'

USIP Report: Conflict and Extremist-Related Sexual Violence

The report discusses the increase in sexual violence among extremist groups, specifically ISIS and Boko Haram, noting that it is similar to violence carried out by state militaries that have been accused of international law and human rights abuses against civilians. The research found that the context of political and economic gender equality on a local and national level is an important factor for understanding the causes of sexual violence in conflict.

Extremist groups are commodifying women and girls. 

Specifically, the status of women within a state affects the likelihood of conflict, and can be an indicator of the likelihood of sexual violence. Research into conflict-related sexual violence is uncovering complex patterns involving power, peer-driven affiliation, and gender inequalities underlying it. The report also indicates that increasingly, the "violent commodification of women and girls is an essential element to the business of extremist groups in the Middle East and Africa."

The report details three main categories of responses to sexual violence in conflict: political, legal, and operational.

  • Politics: Extremist groups that use sexual violence developed and evolved within a wider societal context. To prevent and combat sexual violence, governments must be aware of societal norms of the status of women, and implement policies that promote gender equality. Governments must also be cognisant of how men and women construct their political and economic identities within society, and how policies encourage or inhibit sexual violence.
  • Legal: There are international legal structures and responsibilities (such as UN resolution 1325 and peace and reconciliation councils). These need to be strengthened and used by domestic and international legal personnel to prevent sexual violence, prosecute it when it occurs, and help heal personal and societal wounds from sexual violence.
  • Operational: Military and police training needs to equip security forces to deal with sexual violence and not perpetuate it, including training for gender awareness and protecting against sexual violence. Additionally, there needs to be training on how to respond to sexual violence when it occurs, including ensuring that victims (male and female) feel comfortable and secure in reporting violence.
USIP report ‘Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment’

The senior gender advisor for the USIP, Dr. Kathleen Kuehnast, in July 2015 gave evidence before the US Foreign Affairs Committee on the role of violence against women and children in ISIS and a report was published on her testimony. The understanding of sexual violence in this report includes individual rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual torture, genital mutilation, and sexual humiliation. There is recognition in the report that the use of sexual violence can be more dangerous than violence alone as it destroys families, communities, and the moral fibre of a society. This is one of the reasons it is employed by groups like ISIS, Kuehnast says.

Female victims of sexual violence often suffer social exclusion and isolation even if they escape their imprisonment. Many have committed suicide, and in some Muslim societies, they fall victim to honour killings.

Because the issue stems from a society-wide context, Kuehnast states that women alone cannot address issues of sexual violence, nor can it be done in isolation. Mitigation of sexual violence and care for victims of sexual violence requires an inclusive effort involving men and women. Fathers, brothers, and sons must all be engaged in establishing gender equality, which in turn will lead to a more capable and inclusive state.

Extremists use sexual violence to advance goals, create fear.

Kuehnast also discussed violence perpetrated by young recruits to extremist groups against women and girls. Young men, normally aged 14 years and older are lured to ISIS with the attraction of belonging to a tightknit group, and are attracted to the violent sense of power over women and girls propagated by ISIS. 

ISIS is also focusing on children under 14, kidnapping, enslaving, and selling girls, while it also uses boys as human bombs and executioners. ISIS pays money for girls taken for slavery or as brides. The report recommends paying greater attention to child education, developing suitable exit strategies for those wishing to escape the group's control, and providing trauma counseling for the children and family members who have witnessed the horrific crimes. This, Kuehnast argues, should counter the growing trend in sexual violence being employed by groups like ISIS.

HRW Brief ‘A Long Way Home: Life for the Women Rescued from Boko Haram’

This HRW brief focused on testimonies from freed Boko Haram hostages, mostly teenage girls. They described the pressure exerted on them to marry fighters. If they refused they reported being punished, at one point locked in a crashed plane. Preferential treatment was also given to 'wives' of Boko Haram members, and they were allowed additional freedoms, an encouragement and reward for others to agree to 'marriages.'

The Nigerian military claims to have rescued over 1,000 women and children from Boko Haram in 2015. However, the report states that when soldiers came across hostages, they often gave them little to no information, assistance, or care once they were rescued. Some hostages were even killed during rescue operations by cross fire and fast moving tanks that gave little regard for the presence of civilians. 

Girls and women who have been rescued are currently undergoing a de-radicalisation programme at a military compound developed by the National Security Advisor's office. They are sequestered due to fears some remained in contact with Boko Haram members. It is currently unclear what the programme consists of or how long it lasts.

You can find the USIP reports 'Conflict and Extremist-Related Sexual Violence' here, and 'Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment' here. You can find the Human Rights Watch brief 'A Long Way Home: Life for the Women Rescued from Boko Haram' here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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US Institute of Peace 'Conflict and Extremist related Sexual Violence'
US Institute of Peace 'Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment’
Human Rights Watch ‘A Long Way Home: Life for the Women Rescued from Boko Haram’