Yazidi women and girls who escaped from the Islamic State (IS) group in northern Iraq after suffering systematic abuse and sexual violence need psychosocial treatment and trauma support, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on April 15.
After taking control of the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in August 2014, IS militants abducted as many as several thousand members of the Kurdish Yazidi minority, according to Kurdistan officials and community leaders. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Directorate of Yezidi Affairs has said that, as of March 15, 974 Yazidis have escaped IS, including 513 women and 304 children.
HRW, which carried out research in Dohuk, Iraq in January and February, said that it has documented a "system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery and forced marriage" perpetrated by IS gunmen against Yazidi women and girls, including some as young as nine.
While many of the abducted Yazidis are still missing, those who have escaped are still in need of assistance, according to HRW.
HRW researchers Samer Muscati and Rothna Begum, who conducted interviews with 20 Yazidi girls and women who have escaped IS and who are now living in informal settlements and a camp near Dohuk, said that they had heard "stories of abuse ranging from being forced to wait on [IS] members hand and foot, to beatings, rape, electric shocks, forced marriage and sexual slavery."
HRW's findings match those of other rights groups who have interviewed escaped women and girls.
Begum said that one of the biggest concerns has been that women and girls who escaped IS might face violence when they returned home, because of the stigma attached to women who have experienced sexual abuse from IS militants.
Similar concerns have been raised by other rights groups and Yazidi leaders. Khalida Khalid, a Yazidi adviser to the speaker of parliament in the KRG said that there had been concerns that escaped women could face discrimination or violence from their families.
HRW found that this had not been the case among the women they interviewed, partly because Yazidi religious leader Baba Sheikh has instructed the community not to harm those who had been abducted, raped or forced to convert to Islam. Instead, the escaped women should be welcomed back, Baba Sheikh said.
However, the escaped women and girls need ongoing support, including trauma counseling, according to HRW.
Many of the girls interviewed by HRW told harrowing stories about their experiences in IS captivity. One 15-year-old recalled how she and a friend attempted suicide together but were stopped by an IS militant. The girl and her friend were later beaten and raped for five days until they escaped.
HRW said it had spoken to the director general for health in Dohuk, who said that only about 100 of the 150 women and girls the authorities there had identified as having escaped from IS have received medical treatment.
Other escaped women and girls have not been identified by the health authorities so their families may not know that services are available, HRW said.
Not all of the women and girls who escaped have access to emergency contraception, safe and legal abortion services or psychosocial support, HRW said. Abortion is illegal in Iraq, though it is permitted in certain circumstances including when a woman's life is at risk.
HRW researcher Rothna said that doctors treating the escapees need to be "better trained in examining women who have been sexually assaulted."
"The purpose of the examinations needs to be explained to the women and girls to get informed consent from them, and doctors should ask for consent both before and during the examination. Otherwise, the exams could be harmful and humiliating for women and girls," Rothna said.
Although the plight of escaped Yazidi women and girls has "stopped dominating the news," HRW's Samer said that the crisis still exists.
"Needs are going unmet. And there is an enormous number of people that need help -- especially as more and more women and girls escape [IS]," Samer added.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk