Continuum of Violence

Special Rapporteur on Trafficking urges human rights approach and integration with the WPS agenda

Christine Chinkin and Gema Fernández Rodríguez de Liévana analyse the latest report from the UN trafficking expert, and find reason and opportunity for a more joined up approach to tackling trafficking of women and girls.

Heat map of human trafficking activity across the world. By DARPA graphic

Last year the Centre for Women, Peace and Security published a Working Paper that reflected upon the interplay between the different international legal regimes that have evolved for combatting gender-based violence against women, in peacetime and in conflict, and human trafficking. The report presented to the UN General Assembly on 26 October 2018 by the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and girls, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro (SR), built upon some of the arguments in urging states to adopt a human rights approach to trafficking and for its integration with the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. The SR emphasises the gendered dimensions of trafficking in persons and its disproportionate impact upon women and girls in conflict and post-conflict. She notes that while the number of male victims of trafficking has significantly increased over the past decade, women and girls make up 51% and 20% of trafficking victims respectively. Women and girls are disproportionately subject to trafficking for sexual exploitation, which, when committed in conflict, can constitute conflict-related sexual violence. Nevertheless, recognition of trafficking as a gendered phenomenon has only been slowly acknowledged.

Since the adoption of Resolution 1325 (2000) the UN Security Council has considered sexual violence against women and girls in conflict as a threat to international peace and security. In its subsequent WPS resolution 1820 (2008) the Council affirmed that effective measures to prevent and respond to sexual violence as a tactic of war can ‘significantly contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security’ and demanded that ‘all parties’ to armed conflict protect civilians against such violence. The Council has also addressed human trafficking, (Resolution 2331 (2016); Resolution 2388 (2017), and has identified the relationship between trafficking, sexual violence in armed conflict and terrorism, all of which threaten international peace and security. But it has failed to integrate this understanding with its own WPS agenda. This disconnect undermines a holistic approach towards combatting trafficking in persons, conflict-affected sexual violence and gender-based violence against women, crimes that in the lived experiences of women are often interlinked and not easily separated. It also casts doubt on the Council’s awareness of debates around the continuum of sexual violence across war and peace, as well as its multiple conflict-related manifestations outside those of certain terrorist groups, which are the primary focus of the resolutions on trafficking.

In contrast the SR recommends the integration of trafficking into the WPS agenda to complement ongoing anti-trafficking efforts at the global level, including those of the Security Council. This tactic reinforces the importance of human rights in tackling human trafficking: WPS is in essence a human rights, not a security, agenda, the SR is a human rights mandate and trafficking of women and girls constitutes a violation of their human rights and gender-based violence against women. Under human rights law states must exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish violence against women and accord appropriate reparations to its victims. Most states however perceive human trafficking through a criminal law, immigration and/or security lens that gives little attention to their human rights obligations.

Integrating human trafficking into WPS allows for a breakdown of appropriate responses under the four pillars of prevention, protection, participation and relief and recovery. The SR provides examples under each of these heads as well as practical recommendations. For instance under the prevention pillar she elucidates that conflict is systematically and systemically linked with the risk of being trafficked; this risk should be routinely taken into account from the very onset of conflict and immediate preventive measures introduced. Another constant consequence of conflict is the vulnerability of displaced and fleeing persons to trafficking. She suggests that IDP and refugee camps establish a registry of all persons residing in the camp as a protective measure against disappearance in conjunction with facilities for immediate and secure reporting of missing persons to allow for prompt investigation. Delay reduces the probability of a successful outcome to any such investigation. (Cottonfield; Guatemala). Most fundamentally, given the intersection between trafficking and other forms of violence against women, preventative anti-trafficking measures are to be considered ‘both as life-saving interventions and as being aimed at preventing violence against women.’

The need for consultation with women is captured by the WPS pillars for protection and prevention, as well as for participation. The SR emphasises its importance in the context of trafficked women observing that a widespread failure to recognise the connection between conflict and trafficking as a form of conflict-affected sexual violence means that it is often overlooked during conflict and is omitted from peace processes and planning for post-conflict reconstruction. But survivors of trafficking can make significant contributions to designing and implementing anti-trafficking programmes that are essential to breaking the cycle of violence that impedes a sustainable gendered peace. Women can provide insights into the local economy and assist in programme for reduction of the economic dependency that underpins further vulnerability to trafficking. Victims of trafficking can work with others to raise awareness of the predatory post-conflict economy that fuels demand for trafficking and to establish community-based protective networks. Effective programmes for relief and recovery with informed input from trafficked persons and a gendered approach toward access to and delivery of economic and social rights are described as ‘essential’ to long term recovery. Failure to develop and implement such policies lessens the likelihood of achieving stability and human security post-conflict (including food, health, gender and physical security) that are crucial elements in the prevention of extremism and trafficking.

The same is true of land reform. Access to land and livelihoods are frequently understood as post-conflict economic reconstruction rather than as aspects of combatting conflict-related sexual violence and its continuation in post-conflict. The SR describes the connection between conflict-related sexual violence and the forcible seizing of land, mines and natural resources that leads to forced displacement and enhances vulnerability to being trafficked. Victims are subjected to sexual exploitation and forced labour in illegal mines, and become economic commodities in the male dominated extractive industries that are operated by non-state actors outside the protection of the state. In seeking further research into the linkages between conflict-related sexual violence, trafficking, dispossession of land, exploitation of natural resources and of women, the SR expresses concerns in common with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on conflict-related sexual violence. The latter also explains how sexual violence is used strategically to grasp control of land and resources, destroying the physical and economic security of displaced women and making socioeconomic reintegration vital to relief and recovery. The SRSG urges the Security Council to address the nexus between trafficking in persons and conflict-related sexual violence. Her mandate stems from Resolution 1888 (2009) thus strengthening the argument for integration of these currently separated agendas. The CEDAW Committee too has explained that trafficking is exacerbated during and after conflict and that conflict-affected areas constitute places of origin, transit and destination for trafficking (CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation No. 30). Taken together these expert opinions facilitate ‘joined up thinking … grounded in international law and a rights-based and victim-centred approach that is focused on the prevention of gender-based violence and the protection of women and girls from such violence in situations of armed conflict, displacement and post-conflict settings.’


About the authors

Professor Christine Chinkin CMG FBA is Professorial Research Fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, where she leads two major projects: ‘A Feminist International Law of Peace and Security’ funded by the AHRC and ‘Gendered Peace’, funded by the ERC.


Gema Fernández Rodríguez de Liévana is a Spanish human rights lawyer who specialises in human trafficking, violence against women and sexual and reproductive rights. She is managing attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide.


Male survivors are not ’emasculated’ but experience ‘displacement from gendered personhood’

Taking Northern Uganda as a case study, Philipp Schulz explores the intersecting harms experienced by male survivors of sexual violence, and argues that these harms can potentially be mitigated. He suggests that improved understanding – and language – can aid recovery.  

Memorial in Burcoco, Awach sub-county, Northern Uganda in memory of a 1991 massacre by the National Resistance Army (NRA).

The United Nations Security Council (UN SC) and the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda initially paid insufficient attention to sexual violence against men and boys. Since the passing of UNSC resolution 2106 in June 2013 and subsequent resolutions, however, there has been growing recognition of men and boys as victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the policy-arena and in scholarship. Even though women and girls remain disproportionally affected by gender-based violence, male sexual harms are now increasingly incorporated into conceptions of wartime sexual violence, and these crimes have been documented in over fifty contemporary armed conflicts globally.

Despite this growing awareness, however, the dynamics surrounding these crimes – and how sexual violence affects male survivors’ lives, relationships and gender identities – remains poorly understood. It is widely argued that male-directed sexual violence compromises male survivors’ masculine identities, in a process often termed as ’emasculation’ by way of ‘feminisation’ and /or ‘homo-sexualisation’. The vast majority of studies on sexual violence against men suggest that ’emasculating’ male survivors is at once a motivation for sexual violence against men to occur as well as its primary consequence. Yet, despite initial conceptual insights, how the compromising of survivors’ masculinities unfolds empirically, and what the effects of these crimes on male survivors are, remains insufficiently addressed.

In a recent article in International Affairs, I argue that the impact of conflict-related sexual violence against men is a dynamic process, perpetuated over time through social interactions, health implications and a lack of gender-sensitive medical provisions. In the context of hetero-patriarchal gender relations, physical acts of sexual violence – and in particular anal rape – subordinate male victims along gendered hierarchies. According to locally-specific constructions of gender and sexuality in Northern Uganda, if a man is raped, he involuntarily takes on a female sexual role and character, and is thereby made subordinate in the hierarchical gender order.

The gendered effects of sexual violence extend beyond the physical violations, and are compounded through different physical, psychological and physiological consequences, which in turn result in sexual and gendered harms. These intersecting harms signify male survivors’ inabilities to protect themselves as well as their families; to provide materially and economically as a result of physical injuries and long-lasting health implications; and to procreate because of physiologically conditioned inabilities or difficulties to achieve or sustain an erection. In combination, these intersecting experiences impact upon male survivors’ masculine identities in a myriad of ways, striking directly at multiple levels of what it means to be a man in Northern Uganda’s society.

In addition to this insight – that the impact of sexual violence on gender identities is a layered process, rather than a singular event – I argue that survivors’ lived realities are not necessarily static, but often dynamic and variable. Throughout the literature on sexual violence against men, however, processes of ’emasculation’ are often understood as the ultimate and definite loss of manhood, and survivors are seen as being completely and indefinitely stripped of their masculine identities. For instance, in his seminal article on the topic, Sivakumaran posits that sexual violence robs victims of their masculine status, suggesting non-reversible effects. In reality, however, there often is a gap between the language and idea of ’emasculation’, which appears static and unambiguous, and survivors’ experiences, which often are fluid and variable and can potentially change.

Deconstructing male survivors’ gendered harms reveals that the impact of sexual violence on gender identities can potentially be mitigated, of course not without leaving their physical and psychological marks. To illustrate, male survivors in Northern Uganda often expressed to have felt to be ‘less of a man‘ as a result of the sexual violations they had experienced. One survivor explained that after having been raped, he ‘started feeling useless and not man enough‘. For numerous survivors, however, these feelings and perceptions were able to change again over time, influenced by a range of factors, such as membership in survivors’ groups or access to physical and psychological rehabilitative support.

One survivor described that ‘before we came together [in a survivors’ group] we had a lot of feelings of being less of a man, but since being in a group, these feelings have reduced.’ Others who have received physical and psychological support, for instance by the Refugee Law Project, attested that ‘through the medical treatment, I was able to work again and provide for my family like a man.’ Such testimonies suggest that although the sexual violations clearly impacted upon their gender identities, these experiences can be mitigated and addressed over time.

In light of these findings, I argue that it might be more accurate and appropriate to speak of the effects of sexual violence on gender identities as ‘displacement from gendered personhood’, rather than as ’emasculation’ through ‘feminisation’ and/or ‘homo-sexualisation’. In many ways, these terminologies rely on misogyny, gender essentialism and homophobia – by assuming that being symbolically rendered feminine and/or homosexual automatically translates into degradation and humiliation and is necessarily and inherently negative. Ultimately, the assumptions of invulnerable masculinities in contrast to infantilised femininities that underpin the language of ‘feminisation’ (when employed for male sexual assault) risk reinforcing dominant and damaging ideas about masculinities and hetero-sexualities.

But the idea of ’emasculation’ also falls into a tendency of freezing dynamic experiences into time and space. As an alternative, using the framework of ‘displacement from gendered personhood’ – inspired by Edström, Dolan and colleagues – instead recognises that comparable to physical displacement, for instance into a refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, ‘displacement from gendered personhood’ can potentially be temporal and possibly be alleviated.

The conclusions to be drawn from this are that sexual violence can compromise male survivors’ masculinities in a dynamic way that is perpetuated over time; but that these experiences are not necessarily static and ultimate, and can potentially be mitigated through different factors. This is important for comprehending how these crimes are perceived and experienced in terms of their gendered damage, and also has implications for survivors’ contemporary quests for justice and assistance.


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund.

About the author
Dr Philipp SchulzDr Philipp Schulz (@philipp_schulz1) is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. His research interests include gender, conflict and security, and his work has been published in International Affairs, the International Feminist Journal of Politics or the International Journal of Transitional Justice.

His recent article, ‘Displacement from gendered personhood: sexual violence and masculinities in northern Uganda’ was published in the September 2018 issue of International Affairs.

The continuum of gender based violence in Ukraine

In our continuum of violence series, Laura Dean looks behind the high levels of gender-based violence during the war in Ukraine and finds a pre-war society with deeply entrenched inequalities and discrimination against women.

A trolleybus in Ukraine displaying an anti-domestic violence awareness poster (OSCE, 2012)

Calls to the domestic violence hotline in Ukraine have increased 30 percent since the war in Eastern Ukraine began in March 2014. Although this statistic and increased reporting of domestic violence have been described as an unintended outcome of the war, I argue that this violence is not episodic violence brought about as a result of the war but normative violence on a continuum of Gender Based Violence (GBV) that existed in Ukraine before the war due to gender inequality, discrimination, and patriarchal norms.

Before the war there was an emphasis on the issue of human trafficking in the media but since the war started there has been a shift to domestic violence. The emphasis on human trafficking was linked to visa liberalisation and foreign aid. After the war, domestic violence – a prevalent but muted phenomenon in Ukraine – has been highlighted by the government with a new criminalisation statute and increased media coverage of domestic violence due to the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas.

Popular explanations for the surge in domestic violence include increased violence in society due to images of violence and deaths in the media, mental health problems with soldiers fighting in the conflict, and stress due to the economic crisis. However, I argue that GBV – in domestic violence and human trafficking – occurred before the war and, these events simply shed light on normative violence and gender inequality prevalent in Ukrainian society.

Human Trafficking

Forced labour, sex trafficking, and child begging are all different types of trafficking that occurred in Ukraine before the war. Ukraine was categorised as a source, transit, and destination for human trafficking of men, women, and children. Push factors for human trafficking are gender inequality, labour migration, corruption, inefficient law enforcement, lack of trafficking awareness, and stigmatisation of victims.

Since the war began there has been anecdotal evidence of child soldiers in the rebel combat forces, as well as forced recruitment/kidnapping of men and boys for exploitation.  Additionally, there are reports of kidnapping by the anti-government forces of women and girls for the purposes of sex and labour trafficking, so there has been an increase in the more violent forms of trafficking since the war began. Child begging is also still a problem since there is a segment of the population who have lost parents in the war.

There was a shift in labour trafficking from male victims to female victims in 2015 but this shifted back to majority male victims of forced labour by 2016. War, displacement, and the economic crisis in Ukraine have also led to an increase in the number of people vulnerable to human trafficking.

Domestic Violence

Before the war, sexual assault, domestic violence and forced marriage were prevalent in Ukraine. There is also economic violence where housing privatisation exacerbates domestic violence by posing an obstacle to women escaping their abusers. According to a public opinion survey, nearly half of the Ukrainian population has experienced domestic violence in their lives and 30% of Ukrainians were subjected to violence in their childhood.

Domestic violence is considered a private issue in Ukrainian society which means that the state should not be involved. Before the war, prosecutors often refused to pursue prosecution even when women had been severely injured. Only 10% of victims of physical violence sought assistance from the police. The underlying causes of domestic violence before the war include alcohol and strong patriarchal culture.

Since the war started there have been increased reports of violence in families of military service members, with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the trauma of displacement, and those who remain in the conflict areas. IDPs are also at greater risk of trafficking and sexual abuse and the checkpoints at the conflict line are the most dangerous locations to all forms of violence. Since the conflict began 1.85 million Ukrainian women suffer domestic violence but few victims (13%) report to the police. Women who suffer abuse from partners in military service are further discouraged from reporting the crime, as Ukrainian police and society view servicemen as heroes and patriots.

Increasing awareness of domestic violence spurred the government to adopt legislation in January 2018 with criminal liability in domestic violence cases. It also prompted the creation of shelters, hotlines, and a unified state register of domestic violence cases. Unfortunately, this law will come into force until January 2019 and no implementation funding was included in the state budget.

Before and After War Similarities and Differences

 Although the basic dynamics and flows of human trafficking continue in both pre-war and war time, the at-risk population has increased and fuelled the push factors enticing people to leave Ukraine. Women, especially IDPs and those in at-risk groups are at increased risk of human trafficking, sexual violence and survival prostitution. The economic recession has placed a strain on government resources which means that there is less funding to support efforts which are deemed less important, such as gender-based violence.

Domestic violence is still prevalent and considered a private issue where stereotypes impede reporting and assistance in Ukrainian society. Still there is a small increase in reporting to police and asking for assistance since the conflict began which demonstrates increased attention on the issue. Although there is expanded legislation, it has yet to be implemented. The formation of Interagency Work Group on the prevention of violence and trafficking in the Ministry of Social Policy and the GBV Cluster are promising new venues to facilitate initiatives related to GBV.

As the war stretches into its fourth year with continued violence and prolonged displacement, GBV is prevalent on both sides of the conflict line. In order to achieve a sustainable peace more initiatives are necessary to break the continuum and combat the underlying causes of GBV.


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund.

About the author

Dr Laura A DeanDr Laura A. Dean  (@proflauradean) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Williams Professor in Global Studies at Millikin University. She researches gender and politics issues focusing on women’s representation, migration, and gender based violence in Eurasia.

Should policy-makers align attempts to transform violent masculinities?

As part of a series exploring continuums of violence, David Duriesmith looks at policy responses to men’s violence against women and to (men’s) violent extremism, urging policymakers to see beyond the notion of ‘toxic’ masculinity and the ‘bad man’ and acknowledge structural causes.

Memorial for the Lindt Café Siege in Sydney, which prompted conversations in Australia about masculinity and violent extremism

Policymakers in a wide range of arenas are coming to terms with the myriad of harms which are caused by ‘toxic’ forms of masculinity. While harmful masculinities are now considered by those responding to mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and men’s health, the most prominent examples have been attempts at preventing men’s violence. Policy responses to men’s violence have developed in different silos, with distinct sets of tools, understandings and expertise. Recently, the case has been made to break down the silos of policy responses to men’s violence, arguing that due to the interconnected nature of men’s violence there needs to be concerted efforts to transform masculinities.

The argument for a coordinated response relies on the notion that toxic forms of masculinity create a myriad of ills, and responding to each of the symptoms of harmful masculinity is the equivalent of playing whack-a-mole with patriarchy. These moves align closely with the well-established argument from women, peace and security agenda advocates that patriarchal violence exists on a continuum and needs to be addressed in a holistic rather than piecemeal fashion.

A desire to challenge harmful masculinities has resulted in the curious alignment of two policy agendas, preventing violent extremism (PVE) and preventing violence against women (PVAW). These efforts have looked to shift particularly harmful attitudes and practices which were seen to be associated with men’s power and use of violence. Because the policy links between PVE and PVAW are recent and in a state of flux, it is an opportune time to explore the potential pitfalls of linking these two arenas. It is important to ensure that coordinating attempts to transform masculinities don’t reinforce harmful tropes. This is particularly important as both arenas have tended to rely on racist or carceral solutions to violent masculinities.

Policy attempts to transform masculinities have tended to employ a particular stereotyped vision of who is responsible for violence. As Michael Salter has shown “targeting gender norms has proven to be a more palatable method for preventing VAW than addressing structural gender inequality.” This has meant that campaigns focus on presenting those who are violent against women as bad or failed men, then appealing to viewers to adopt an alternative vision of manhood. As Salter explains:

These programmes apply…strong messages about the responsibility of ‘real men’ to prevent VAW…Within a ‘one-dimensional’ framework in which masculinity is a cultural but not structural subject position, those boys and men with the least capacity to transform the determinants of VAW are responsibilised to do so while those who benefit the most from gendered and classed inequalities are rarely the focus of intervention.

Similarly, in response to violent extremism in Australia, we have seen a focus on fixing the failed masculinities of socially marginalised men. As with the early work on PVAW, work from PVE has often worked on developing the profile of a potentially violent man.

The imagination of potential terrorists contained within PVE has been widely dissected as harmful, racist and inaccurate but it remains prevalent. Critical race scholar Yassir Morsi has explored the ways in which imaginations of the radical male Muslim terrorist are deployed to silence radical thought. Drawing directly on Franz Fanon, Morsi argues that Australian responses to violent extremism demand that Muslim men ‘prove’ themselves by partaking in liberal rituals to please a white audience.

Considering Morsi’s critique, there is a distinct risk that aligning PVAW and PVE will exacerbate PVE’s tendency to produce the figuration of failed violent men. An example can be seen in the launch of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre in Victoria, which focusses on profiling potential terrorists. In response, prominent VE expert Clark Jones commented:

“when you spend time in certain suburbs in Melbourne or Sydney, kids are more likely to be involved in behaviours like drug-taking and domestic violence. Violent extremism may be one of these behaviours, but it’s not the only one.”

This response indicates how PVE relies on an imagination of dangerous men from dangerous places. Jones’ allusion to ‘certain suburbs in Melbourne or Sydney’ has a clear meaning within Australia of poor suburbs with large migrant communities. This response resonates with Salter’s critique of PVAW.

Policy responses in both PVE and PVAW suffer from limited imagination, fixated on a particular figuration of the deviant man as the basis for preventing violence. This does not have the capacity to engage root causes of violence or the tricky work of transforming structures which produce violent masculinities. The desire to coordinate responses to men’s violence is in many ways promising, it responds directly to feminist concerns around the continuum of violence. However, I believe there is a potentially unanticipated risk here, that policy response do not increase their effectiveness, but that they resonate in producing and reproducing similar stories about deviant men.

The alignment of policy arenas working on masculinity transformation has the capacity to amplify the most problematic aspects of existing work without substantially improving prevention. This feedback loop risks treating each iteration of reframing as successful prevention, shifts in discourse which constantly search for better ways to understand the deviant masculinity, without addressing structural causes. This alignment will fail if policy responses continue to treat gender as a personal attribute of problematic individuals, rather than an integral social structure. Such a limited approach results in the transformation of masculinities being reduced to encouraging deviant men to take up the mantle of true manhood.

Despite the risks I have outlined, there remains a need to transform masculinities, because “declaring a policy problem to be ‘intractable’ does not make it go away.” It is essential that pro-feminist scholars and activists pay close attention to how knowledge around masculinities is being deployed in PVE programing while remaining attentive to the failures we have already seen in PVAW.


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund.

More in this series:  To address the plight of Yazidi women we must look beyond the notion of wartime ‘sex slaves’, Philippa Greer (LSE WPS Blog, 12 October 2018)


About the author

David DuriesmithDavid Duriesmith (@DavidDuriesmith) is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland where he works on masculinities, violence and peacebuilding.
More by the author:Engaging men and boys in the Women, Peace and Security agenda: Beyond the ‘good men’ industry’ (LSE WPS Working Paper Series 11/2017)

To address the plight of Yazidi women we must look beyond the notion of wartime ‘sex slaves’


In the first in a series exploring the continuum of gender violence across war and peace, Philippa Greer asks us to look beyond sexual violence in conflict by also considering the chronic inequalities of power experienced by Yazidi women before and after ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis. 

A Yazidi girl at a camp in Qadiya (Mauricio Lima/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine)


“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”
Nadia Murad, The Last Girl

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad has become a voice for Yazidi women. In the documentary ‘On her Shoulders’, she can be seen rehearsing the harrowing four minutes and 28 seconds of testimony before the UN Security Council that drew the world’s attention to the plight of the Yazidis.

The ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis is now well-known. After Mosul fell to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014, ISIS carried out attacks in the Sinjar region in August 2014, initially looking for unmarried Yazidi women and girls aged nine and above. Approximately 6,700 females were forced into domestic and sexual servitude across eastern Syria and western Iraq, while thousands of men and older women were executed. As of November 2017, it was estimated that almost 400,000 Yazidis remained displaced.

UN Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017) enables an independent team to collect and preserve evidence of potential international crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq. It is envisaged that such investigations will facilitate prosecutions, which could include holding ISIS accountable for genocide through international justice mechanisms. Yet the attention of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda should further extend to the rights of women pre and post-conflict.

ISIS has largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria. Most of the Yazidis who survived and escaped live in camps and temporary accommodation in Iraq’s Kurdish Region, while a small number have received asylum. Yazda Organization highlights that basic needs are not being met, and more than 70 percent of houses have been destroyed. A dire need for reconstruction remains, including infrastructure for potable water, healthcare and education, and for professional medical and psychological help for Yazidi survivors, including those with severe injuries from prolonged sexual violence.

Safe and legal abortion services are not available to those displaced in Iraq, as Iraqi law only permits abortion in cases of medical necessity and not rape. In addition to the provision of post-conflict assistance, including accessible reproductive health services, Yazidi women should be welcomed into the sphere of post-conflict recovery.

The efforts of Vian Dakhil, Iraq’s only Yazidi MP, to help the Yazidis, have made her ISIS’s assassination target. She is also an outlier – Yazidis have historically been under-represented in government positions in Iraq, with female Yazidis in particular typically being absent from public office roles.

Addressing the Yazidis’ lack of access to quality education could assist in promoting opportunities in the governance sphere, in particular for Yazidi women. When ISIS attacked Sinjar in 2014, in some villages it was still considered improper for girls to receive an education. Moreover, for over a year before ISIS invaded Sinjar, displaced Yazidis could not access schools due to conflict and displacement. It was dangerous for girls in particular to make the journey to school under such circumstances. Today, with Sinjar lying in rubble, many Yazidi youths are still denied access to education due to internal displacement.

The position of Yazidi women could further be improved by addressing the normalisation of domestic violence in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that Yazidi women have few protection mechanisms to shield them from domestic violence. Iraq’s penal code includes provisions on physical assault, yet lacks any explicit mention of domestic violence. While sexual assault is criminalised, Article 398 provides that such charges will be dropped if the assailant marries the victim.

A 2010 UN factsheet stated that one in five Iraqi women were subject to domestic violence, and a 2012 study found that at least 36% of married women have experienced some form of abuse at the hands of their husbands. Such realities should not be overlooked when addressing the sexual and gender based violence perpetrated by ISIS against Yazidi women.

Further, while there has been media attention on the Yazidi women and girls enslaved by ISIS, there has been little attempt to understand how ISIS’s crimes against women fit into wider attempts to destroy the Yazidi community as a religious minority. The Yazidi people record that since inception, their pre-Judaic group has been subjected to seventy-three genocides.

The use of female voices on the international stage seeking prosecution for ISIS’s crimes is a powerful step forward, yet it is not enough. Prosecuting ISIS alone is similarly insufficient. Women will continue to be at risk while they are unrepresented, unprotected, denied full access to education and unable to meaningfully participate in the peace, security and governance arenas.

The lack of Yazidi representation in governance structures and the historical persecution of the Yazidis as a religious minority illustrates the chronic inequalities of power which persist for the Yazidi community during times of apparent normality.

The Yazidi women and girls held by ISIS are not ‘sex slaves’. They are survivors of a systematic attempt to eradicate an entire people. The incidence of continuing conflict and of violence against Yazidi women and girls, including routine instances of poverty, displacement, domestic violence and inequality must be addressed within the WPS agenda.

Following the capture of Afrin, Syria by the Turkish army and its Arab allies on 18 March 2018, and the resultant occupation of Yazidi villages, it is clear that ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis forms part of not only a continuum of inequality faced by Yazidi women during times of “uneasy” peace and post-conflict, but also a continuum of persecution, involving the sustained political, economic and social marginalisation of the Yazidi community, as well as their repeated victimisation through consecutive campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

As Teju Cole wrote in 2015, “Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way.”


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund. 

About the author 

Philippa Greer (@philippa_bear) is a Legal Officer working for the United Nations. Her research areas include international criminal justice, women, peace and security, penal reform, the death penalty and international law.