It is time to acknowledge sexual violence as a weapon of war

“I was an ISIS sex slave.  I tell my story because it is the best weapon I have.”Nadia Murad[1]

On the 6th October 2018, the world woke up to the news that the Nobel Peace Prize, had been awarded to anti-rape activists Nadia Murad and Dr. Denis Mukwege. The world heard Nadia, narrate her story of sexual violence committed against her and against innocent Yazidi girls who were kidnapped by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Dr. Denis Mukwege, a 63-year-old Congolese gynaecologist, set up the Panzi hospital in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and treated women who had been raped and mutilated by armed men. They both fought hard to bring the issue of sexual violence in conflict to light, a theme unspoken about for fear of social stigma, for the untranslatability of the survivors’ feelings into words and phrases, for religious beliefs and for so many other reasons. Nadia Murad adds: “persecution of minorities must end. We must work together with determination - to prove that genocidal campaigns will not only fail but lead to accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the survivors”.

Nadia was targeted by ISIS militants for being a minority, non-Muslim women and considered to be a ‘spoil of war’, known as ‘sabiya’, pl. ‘sabaya’. She, and many others like here, are deemed ‘non-believers’ by ISIS militants despite the fact that she belongs to one of the oldest minorities in Iraq. Thinking of my research on sexual violence against women in Algeria during the Civil War, however, Algerian women survivors would argue: we are not a minority, we are Muslims, Sunni, we are Arabs and Berbers, yet we have been raped.  Why were we raped? Aren’t our perpetrators Muslim like us, we are 99% a Sunni population? To add to the complexity of the question, they can say: despite being the only Arab country, where women fought alongside their male counterparts in the War of Liberation 1954-1962, yet, we were kidnapped, raped, tortured and rendered into sex slaves in the 1990s. So many questions remain unanswered.

What could be answered though is the fact that despite the difference in languages, ideologies, religions, race, regions, one is talking about the same phenomenon, which is “conflict-related sexual violence”. It refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict. The term also includes trafficking in persons when committed in situations of conflict for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation. The whole lexicon related to sexual violence was the first hurdle I came across when interviewing survivors, particularly when translated into Arabic, bringing to surface discourses varying between ‘jihad al nikah’ (sexual jihad) to rape, as a weapon of war. This is no different from the global attempt to understanding the phenomenon calling it sometimes ‘private crime’ in war and other times ‘weapon of war’, without really capturing the reality of the crime in conflict zones.

To raise awareness and to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, the 19th June, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 19 June of each year the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.   The date was chosen to commemorate the adoption on 19 June 2008 of Security Council Resolution 1820, in which the Council condemned sexual violence as a tactic of war and an impediment to peacebuilding. It is worth noting that a sexual-related violence does not refer to women and girls only, but it includes men and boys, who are often invisible or unaccounted for, within the context of sexual violence in conflict. Sexual violence remains a threat to our common humanity. Its traumatic effects can be witnessed across generations, as my findings reveal in the case of Algeria. Acknowledging sexual violence as a weapon of war, a tactic of terrorism in this globalised world we live can, only be a step towards reclaiming our humanity and towards re-building peace and reconciliation.

Dr Anissa Daoudi Lecturer in Arabic and Translation Studies. Department of Modern Languages. 



[1] Nadia Murad: Nobel Peace Prize Winner. 06.10.2018.