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March 5, 2016

Responding To: Human Security in the Face of Violent Extremism

Human Security in the Face of Violent Extremism

Zainab Hawa Bangura

Extremists view women's bodies as vessels for producing a generation that can be raised in their own image according to their radical ideology. ISIS's methods and ideas may be medieval, but the way they communicate them is distinctly modern. More than 30,000 men and women from over 100 countries have been lured into their ranks as fighters or brides through sophisticated social media messaging. They have turned the internet, a platform designed to liberate, unite, and connect people, into a tool of evil. Communication is ISIS's oxygen, and we must find ways to suffocate them. We must continually contest their narrative and worldview in order to win the underlying battle of ideas. In the territories these groups control, women's bodies have become sites of contestation between fundamentalist and progressive values. This means that every step forward for women's rights is also a small victory in the fight against fundamentalism.

When we think of terrorism we tend to think of destruction, killing, kidnapping, and abduction. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are not mentioned in any national counterterrorism legislation. The Security Council's recent recognition of sexual violence as both a tactic of war and a tactic of terrorism affirms that counterterrorism strategies can no longer be decoupled from strategic efforts to end this scourge. Armed groups often view the civilian population as a resource to be exploited, seeing women's sexuality and reproductive capacity as commodities to be owned, traded, and trafficked as part of the political economy of war. ISIS has used sexual violence to mobilize resources, to fund its operation, including through the ransoming and sale of women and girls. It is believed that $850,000 was paid in January 2015 for the release of 200 Iraqi Yazidis.

When sexual violence is deliberately employed as a tool of genocide against ethnic, political, and religious minority groups the intention is not simply to kill the enemy, but to control or even end their ability to give birth. In this way women's body are used as biological weapons to alter the demography of a region and to unravel existing kinship ties. Attacking women as soft targets to reach otherwise unreachable enemies as a proxy for their husbands, fathers, or sons, who are fighters or political leaders, or because they are seen as the bearers of social-cultural identity, literally turns women's bodies into battlefields and weapon factories for producing the next generation of fighters. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge in relation to atrocity crimes like conflict-related sexual violence is moving from a long history of justice delayed and justice denied to justice delivered, and from a culture of impunity to a culture of deterrence.

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

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