Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, at a May 7, 2015, press briefing.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, at a May 7, 2015, press briefing.

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, recently completed a 12-day trip to assess the use of rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage as a strategy of war and tactic of terror in the Middle East, particularly by the Islamic State, or Daesh as some prefer to call the terrorist group. Upon her return, she gave a press conference to the U.N. press corps and subsequently answered Women’s eNews’ questions via email because she was traveling again.

1. You have mentioned sending a technical team to work with authorities and U.N. colleagues on the ground in certain areas to implement new strategies and plans. Can you please elaborate? 

We are in ongoing discussions with the Syrian and Iraqi authorities regarding specific areas that require urgent intervention, and we are seeking a commitment from them on ways to strengthen cooperation with the U.N. on these issues. U.N. agencies also need greater support to be able to provide the necessary assistance to the authorities and respond to the needs of the affected population, particularly women and girls who suffer severe trauma and face risks of sexual violence where they have taken refuge, particularly in the camps. On this basis, I hope to be able to send a technical team back to the region in the coming months to work with the relevant authorities and the U.N. system on a strategy and implementation plan. I can assure you that over the course of the next year my office will have a concerted focus on the Middle East. 

2. How is the war on women being waged by Daesh affecting the political and social dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, region?

Sexual violence by ISIL (as the group is also known) and other extremist groups arises from discrimination and dehumanization based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnic, political or religious identity, in particular the subordination of women and girls. Indeed, the same ideology and objectives that motivate Boko Haram to abduct women and girls in Nigeria, also spur ISIL to enslave women and girls in Syria and Iraq. With the transnational presence of ISIL, and the cross-border dimensions of the Syrian crisis, it is clear that a concerted regional response is required, including improved information-sharing across countries, and a common counter-terrorism response. Such violence has led to a number of harmful or negative coping mechanisms, such as the early marriage of girls by families that have no other means of protecting them, an increase in polygamy and “survival sex” by those with no economic alternatives, as well as the withdrawal and isolation of women and girls from education and public life. 

3. While you were in Damascus, Syria, you visited a detention center to which the U.N. has not previously had access. What was your objective there?

In Damascus, I was indeed able to visit an intelligence-run detention facility to which the U.N. has had no access so far. In the detention facility I was able to see some of the women detainees. One of the main objectives of having included such a visit in my program was to discuss with the Syrian authorities the need to gain regular access for the relevant U.N. and other international actors to detention facilities run by both military and intelligence, in order to ensure that basic legal standards are met, such as women having separate quarters from men and being under the immediate supervision of female, rather than male, guards. I have received consistent information about sexual violence against both women and men in the context of detention since the beginning of the conflict in Syria.

4. Women in minority communities such as the Yazidis of northern Iraq are at particular risk, as you noted in a recent panel discussion at the International Peace Institute. Can you talk about that?

Indeed, 2014 saw a rise in the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities in a number of conflict-affected countries, including Iraq. Attacking vulnerable groups and singling out minorities not only violates human rights law, it tears the fabric of society and creates a cycle of retribution and revenge that fuels conflict and makes reconciliation more difficult after conflict ends. In Iraq, I visited Lalish, some 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from ISIL-held Mosul, and there I spoke with women and girls, mainly from the Yazidi community, who had escaped ISIL captivity in Raqqa and Mosul. They recounted the most painful and unimaginable experiences of constant rape and other forms of sexual violence, combined with other forms of extreme torture. The authorities, particularly in Kurdistan which is hosting the great majority of displaced people, have adopted a number of mechanisms to address the situation, but still and as discussed with U.N. colleagues on the ground, one of the recurrent challenges faced by humanitarian actors is to increase safe access to livelihoods, psychosocial counseling, as well as security and justice for survivors.

5. What response did you get from the U.N. Security Council to your recommendation that the al-Qaida sanctions committee consider sexual violence crimes in its work and ensure the protection of women as an integral part of the counter-terrorism strategy?

The members of the Security Council are receptive to that recommendation and increasingly recognize the importance of including women’s rights as part of all counter-terrorism efforts. For instance, the Security Council meeting on foreign terrorist fighters, held in September 2014, marked an emerging recognition that members of extremist groups enslave, rape and forcibly marry women and girls, resulting in calls for the empowerment of “youth, families and women” as part of an overarching strategy to prevent the spread of terror, in Resolution 2178 (2014). 

6. Since you assumed your position in 2012, we have seen the terrifying rise of sexual violence as a strategic tool of war. Can you comment?

What has become clear from preparing the last report of the secretary-general on conflict-related sexual violence, issued in March, is that non-state actors in general and extremist groups in particular are responsible for a growing number of cases of conflict-related sexual violence. We need to look at the tools and points of leverage we have to influence the behavior of non-state actors who use sexual violence as both a tactic of war and a tactic of terror in order to determine whether the existing implements we have can be applied or whether we need to augment the measures at our disposal to prevent the commission of sexual violence. We also need to look not only at ending impunity but also deterrence, and this is much more challenging when you are dealing with actors who have no respect for international human rights law or international humanitarian law. This is particularly relevant for the situations in Iraq and Syria, with ISIL institutionalizing sexual violence and the brutalization of women and girls as a central aspect of its ideology and operations, and where the lives of women and girls, as well as the cohesion and identity of entire communities, are being destroyed. 

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