When studying in Jordan last fall, I was stunned by the silence around sexual violence experienced by women in Syrian refugee camps. In Arab communities, where social stigma and family honor carry huge weight, consequences of sexual violence extend far beyond scarring psychological trauma to fear of alienation and even honor killing. Already traumatized by the realities of war and atrocities, unaddressed rape tears lives and families apart – stigmatized and silenced, survivors are left with no means of healing. Sexual violence in the context of war can leave an entire population voiceless, paralyzed, and fractured.
Much like patterns seen in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and beyond, the self-declared Islamic State (IS), also called ISIS or ISIL, has been systematically utilizing sexual violence to terrorize and brutalize men, women, and children alike. In light of a fatwa declaring “sexual jihad,” rape and kidnapping have quickly escalated as a fear-mongering tactic in Iraq and Syria. As of August, the United Nations estimated that some 1,500 women and children may have been forced into sexual slavery by IS – some through the abduction and abuse of entire families.
Media focus on IS has hardly wavered since June as the group rapidly seized Iraqi cities – threatening, torturing, and killing countless civilians. More recently, the beheadings of journalists, aid workers, and civilians have dominated headlines and captivated public attention. Meanwhile, the strategic use of sexual violence has barely been covered. Though multiple reports indicate IS’s extensive use of sexual enslavement, the Western world has remained virtually silent on this particular war tactic. The Guardian has noted the “deafening silence” on these abuses even among the world’s feminists.
Obama’s brief mention of sexual violence in his speech on IS this September barely skimmed the surface of this major issue, placing his focus on U.S. military action rather than the broader humanitarian crisis at hand. Despite its ravaging and widespread repercussions, sexual violence is still considered a tangential women’s issue and is not given the same quantity or quality of coverage as recent beheadings or the debate over military intervention.
As the United States engages in military action in the Middle East, the American public must strive to understand the scope of sexual violence and the weight of its consequences, responding with the same outrage and empathy prompted by beheadings. If we are to curb violence in the region and pursue justice for survivors, increased international attention and media coverage on sexual violence are absolutely critical.