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Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently visited Syria and Iraq, as well as neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to hear from women who had experienced conflict-related sexual violence. Here, she shares the stories that made the greatest impression on her.

Zainab Bangura, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

“It’s not an ordinary rebel group,” she said. “When you dismiss them as such, then you are using the tools you are used to. This is different. They have the combination of a conventional military and a well-run organised state.”

Officials and scholars have struggled to understand Islamic State’s success despite breaking what are widely seen as rules for insurgents – to be sure to mingle with local populations, not take on established militaries or try to hold territory. The group has broken all those rules and draws thousands of foreign fighters despite its well-publicised savagery.

Spreading fear

Kerry Crawford, who teaches at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, US, said that publicising the violations is used to the group’s advantage by building internal ties and external fear.

“If you and your group are doing something that is considered taboo, your doing it together forms a bond,” she said. “Sexual violence does really create fear within a population.”

Sexual abuse by soldiers has a long history including the so-called rape camps in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, she said.

Islamic State has made a particular practice of enslaving communities it has conquered those that are not Sunni Muslim – Yazidis and Christians, for example. It portrays such conquests as God’s work, drawing disaffected Muslims from around the world.

Mrs Bangura said the international community and the UN have been taken aback by such practices because they do not resemble those of village militias in other countries.

“They have a machinery, they have a program,” she said. “They have a manual on how you treat these women. They have a marriage bureau which organises all of these ‘marriages’ and the sale of women. They have a price list.”

Bloomberg (7)

Henry Sapiecha