Ariel Ahram, associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs, testified Wednesday, July 29, that sexual violence in the midst of civil wars in Syria and Iraq has reached catastrophic levels.

Testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs about “The Islamic State’s War on Women and Girls,” Ahram said: “I use the word 'catastrophic' deliberately in order to stress to you the magnitude of the crisis today engulfing Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has systematically abducted, enslaved, and sexually terrorized thousands — and likely tens of thousands — of women and girls.”

Ahram was one of four witnesses at a hearing on “Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment.” U.S. Rep. Ed Royce of California, chairman of the committee, convened the hearing to better understand the vicious terrorist group by examining ISIS’s violence against women and girls and its increasing efforts to recruit female members to join its ranks.

“From widespread sexual violence to trafficking to forced marriage, ISIS’s brutality against women and girls is almost without parallel. But while it may appear indiscriminate, ISIS’s violence against women is calculated and designed to further its goal of establishing an ‘Islamic State,’” Royce said when he called for the hearing.

Ahram drew from his research on the insurgency in Iraq for his testimony. His paper, “Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS,” was recently published in Survival, a journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In the article, Ahram explained that he tried to cut through the sensationalism surrounding the topic and argued that ISIS is just one of several belligerents in Syria and Iraq that has used rape as a weapon of war. 

“National armies and pro-government militias have also been implicated in sexual violence,” Ahram testified.

“International human rights organizations have documented how Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian security forces have used sexual violence, including sexualized torture and rape. Pro-government militia groups, such as the National Defense Battalions in Syria and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, have been implicated in rape and other atrocities against civilians. Recognizing the extent and scope of sexual violence gives a better appreciation for the perception by some in the Sunni communities that ISIS offers them defense against brutalization. It also reinforces the crucial point that ISIS is not the sole cause for the violence enveloping the region,” Ahram said.

Ahram also reminded the committee that ISIS’s practice of sexual violence is not limited to females. ISIS has tortured and killed accused homosexuals in especially gruesome and horrifying ways, he said. 

Addressing what can be done to help the situation, Ahram said, “I fear that a military response will likely generate more violence and induce greater population displacement. Displaced populations are the most vulnerable to all kinds of sexual exploitation, including abductions, enslavement, and prostitution. In 2013 alone the United Nations Population Fund had received request for assistance from 38,000 Syrians related to gender-based violence, including rape, domestic violence, and abuse. As the number of refugees and internally-displaced persons has ballooned, this number has almost certain grown as well.

“The U.S. has a number of non-military measures that can help alleviating the crisis of sexual violence. The first is to aid Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and other regional states to stop the flow of human trafficking in their areas in order cut off the financial benefits that come from sexual enslavements. Secondly, the U.S. can also put pressure on Syrian and Iraqi authorities to stop using sexual violence themselves. This would help to reassure frightened Sunni communities and keep them from turning to ISIS for protection. Finally and most importantly, the U.S. must support UN Refugee agencies and international and local NGOs working directly with the victims of sexual violence in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere. The efforts of these agencies will be crucial to assist sexual violence victims reintegrate with their communities and mitigate the stigma attached to victimization,” Ahram concluded.

Read Ahram’s full statement.

Joining Ahram as witnesses at the hearing were: Sasha Havlicek, chief executive officer, Institute for Strategic Dialogue; Edward Watts, director and producer of “Escaping ISIS;” and  Kathleen Kuehnast, director, gender and peacebuilding, Center for Governance, Law and Society, United States Institute of Peace. 

A lengthy question-and-answer session followed the four formal testimonies.

 

 

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