A woman attends a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, outside the defence headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, earlier this year. This is an example of the use of women and girls as weapons in war, including those conducted in the name of religion where sexual assault is seen as a way to humiliate the enemy.

By Sally Armstrong – October 21, 2014 

“You can only die once. If I stayed on the truck they would kill me. So I jumped.” A kidnapped 14-year-old girl from <ä>Chibok, Nigeria</ä>

The first headlines came in April: 276 school girls kidnapped in Nigeria. The girls had been writing their final exams in the mostly Christian town of Chibok in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram, an outlawed Islamist Jihadist group whose name roughly means non-Muslim education is a sin, broke into the school pretending to be guards and abducted the young teenagers. Nearly six months later, they are still missing.

The second headlines followed soon after in June: Thousands of Yazidi women captured in northern Iraq by Islamic State. The women, whose ancient faith can be traced back to Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, were rounded up by ISIL fighters in trucks and driven away to a fate that included being auctioned as sex slaves.

The kidnappings and rapes stirred shock and anger around the world. How is it possible, people asked, that women and girls are still being used as tools of war in a era with high-tech weaponry so sophisticated a missile can be sent through an office window?

Suaad Allami, an Iraqi human rights activist and director of the non-governmental organization Women for Progress, says that while the mistreatment of women is nothing new in warfare, the manner in which Yazidi women are being used signals a shift.

“Women are seen as the source of honour in our conservative societies,” she says from Baghdad. “If you touch the women you destroy their honour and that weakens their men, humiliates them, shatters the society. It’s a way of killing the enemy.”

American Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams agrees, and while she believes that growing awareness of how women are being used as weapons of war is shifting attitudes, that in turn has triggered a desperate response from Islamic militants.

“What we’re seeing today in Nigeria and in Iraq is the violent backlash of those who fear the change,” she says.

Wazhma Frogh, founder of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Afghanistan, believes the use of women as tools of war can be found at the heart of all of the radical insurgencies being conducted in the name of religion.

 “Radicalism and extremism through violent insurgencies keep targeting women because for radicals, unarmed women and girls seem to pose the biggest threat,” she says.

So while the wider world continues to shift for the better for women’s rights — major corporations are starting to seek women for their boards, women now outnumber men on many university campuses, the women of the Arab Spring flexed their might in overthrowing dictators, the women of Afghanistan and beyond have been to the barricades to alter their status­ — sexual violence still stalks half the planet’s population, especially in wartime.

And it always has.

In Bosnia in the 1990s, women were kept in rape camps and sexually assaulted by gangs of Serb extremists until they became pregnant, presumably to replace the Bosnian DNA with the Serbian seed. Later, in the Darfur region of Sudan, in Rwanda and in the Congo, rape was used to humiliate and dominate the enemy.

These are the well-known cases. But historically, rape has mostly been a secret kept by the victims, their shame giving the perpetrators impunity.

It was only recently, for example, that extensive work conducted by American researchers Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel uncovered shocking truths about the sexual assault of Jewish women who were used as tools of the Second World War and referred to this kind of shame as the most effective of all social weapons. What’s more, they found, the rapes were known by the judges during the war crimes trials at Nuremburg but not mentioned because the judges “didn’t want their courtrooms full of bawling women.” 

Seventy years later, women the world over, including in Nigeria and Iraq, are reforming justice systems, opening schools and establishing health care. They’re taking leadership roles and acting as mentors and role models.

But rape continues to be the ugly foundation of women’s story of change. Rape as punishment or as a means of control still lurks in that narrative. And the impunity of the rapists constitutes a centuries-old record of disgrace that continues today.

Now, though, amid the horrid headlines, something new has begun to appear on the horizon. Although history is replete with stories of soldiers raping and pillaging and society has tolerated the modern version of behaviour known as “boys will be boys,” those reprehensible actions are starting to be seen through a revised lens.

In May, when President Barack Obama dispatched strategic advisers and soldiers to Nigeria to help find the kidnapped girls, he made history. Never before had any military or government gone anywhere for the specific purpose of rescuing girls. The message Obama sent — supported by Britain, China, Israel, France and Canada — was that girls count and education is paramount.

Governments have presented the pretence of rescuing women and children before, but no effort was as focused as Obama’s.

When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, there were those who suggested president George W. Bush took the action to rescue women from the clutches of the Taliban. But that presumption was nonsense. With the attacks of Sept. 11 still stinging, the U.S.-led troops moved into Afghanistan to overthrow the hated Taliban and get rid of the menacing al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The soldiers happened to trip over burka-clad women along the way and the human rights catastrophe those women and girls were enduring became flash points to the world. But the women of Afghanistan were not on the original invasion agenda.

In 2012, there was the online campaign to stop the murderous Joseph Kony in Uganda, known for his use of child soldiers and for taking girls as his wives. The campaign fizzled, and although some troops were sent from the international community to track down Kony, they were not backed up with drones, high-tech communication resources or top-level strategists.

In that light, it is possible to see Obama’s decision to rescue 276 girls from the clutches of a religious crackpot as akin to putting Vladimir Putin on notice for his interference in Ukraine.

For a time, the action seemed to gobble up the sensibilities of the whole world. Michelle Obama tweeted, #Bring Back Our Girls. So did Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who catapulted to international fame in 2012 after she survived an attack by a Taliban gunman on a school bus. Hillary Clinton called the kidnapping an act of terrorism. Even Pope Francis made a plea for the girls.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), the juggernaut for women’s issues in Asia and Africa, was on the case two weeks before the redoubtable Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan went public with a mild plea on behalf of the girls. WLUML prepared a statement in English, French, Spanish and Arabic condemning Abubakar Shekau, the outlawed leader of Boko Haram. Thousands of women bombarded cyberspace with petitions.

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram which has been holding a group of Christian schoolgirls since kidnapping them earlier this year

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram which has been holding a group of Christian schoolgirls since kidnapping them earlier this year. Boko Haram / AFP Photo

And like a gathering storm, civil society and government leaders were blown into action on behalf of adolescent girls. Kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault were seen as the horrendous crimes they are. The thugs claiming the mistreatment of girls as a cultural or religious matter and none of our business learned that the world thinks it is criminal behaviour and everyone’s business. The notion that culture and religion are sacrosanct had begun to collapse.

And then there are the courageous accounts of women and girls rescuing themselves.

In Nigeria, a 14-year-old escaped Boko Haram by jumping off the back of a moving truck crammed with schoolgirls and hiding in the jungle until the kidnappers gave up and drove away with her schoolmates.

When Maryam Uwais, a Nigerian activist lawyer and founder of the #Bring Back Our Girls movement, met the girl and asked where she got the nerve to jump off a fast-moving truck, she replied: “I figured you can only die once. If I stayed on the truck they would kill me so I jumped.” She rolled into the underbrush and stayed as still as death until the soldiers finally abandoned the search and left with the bounty of now-bound girls in the truck.

The teenager, who did not want to be identified, also met later with Malala Yousafzai, who travelled to Nigeria to establish solidarity with the families of the girls.

In northern Iraq, there are also accounts of courageous escapes. Dr. Golo Sinjari, acting director of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Iraq, tells the chilling story of two young women, 19 and 16, from Sinjar Mountain near Mosul who escaped when people in a town they’d been taken to paid ISIL (also known as ISIS) fighters to let them go.

“The girls had been raped repeatedly by different commanders as they were sold from one group to another,” Sinjari said in an email. “The ISIS soldiers claim this is called Jihad marriage, and since they had forced the girls to convert to Islam, raping them was acceptable.”

These Iraqi Yazidis women and children, are among the thousands who fled their homes in Sinjar when Islamic State militants attacked during the summer, finding refuge in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region. The Independent Human Rights Commission in Iraq has reported women and girls who are not able to escape from the advancing militants, are subjected to repeated rape, forced conversion to Islam and being sold from one group to another.

These Iraqi Yazidi women and children, are among the thousands who fled their homes in Sinjar when Islamic State militants attacked during the summer, finding refuge in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. The Independent Human Rights Commission in Iraq has reported women and girls who are not able to escape from the advancing militants, are subjected to repeated rape, forced conversion to Islam and being sold from one group to another. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

As if to underscore the impunity of the rapists in the eyes of a conservative community, the Yazidi religious leaders and tribal elders promised the escaped women could live safely in their community because the rape had taken place under threat by ISIL.

“That’s why the use of women as tools of war is psychological warfare against the men in the community,” says rights activist Allami. 

Such cases are not uncommon.

Research done by the Denmark-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network shows that in countries in transition — particularly in the last three years in the Mediterranean region — violence against women, including sexual violence, is often used as a weapon of war or as a means to intimidate and stigmatize.

In Afghanistan, activist Wazhma Frogh says that while it is not new that women are being used as tools of war, “the strategies of war have changed from a military combat to a more civilian-attack paradigm because wars are more an insurgency now.”

In provinces where the Taliban is active, she says, most girls’ schools are closed, female government workers are threatened and female doctors, journalists and police officers have been assassinated. Any woman or girl outside the home is an abomination to the Taliban, a danger to family honour.

Says Frogh: “In this country, attacking women means attacking the honour and image of the family.” Like Northern Iraq, it’s a strategy to ruin the enemy.

Adds Massouda Jalal, founder of the Jalal Foundation, an NGO working for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and a former Afghan minister of women’s affairs: “The Taliban’s agenda … is not just oppression of women per se, but ensuring the entrenchment of their mangled values that will make Talibanism sustainable.”

Massouda Jalal, a pediatrician and former Afghan minister of women's affairs who ran for the presidency in 2004, created the Jalal Foundation to work for women's rights in that country and has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban

Massouda Jalal, a pediatrician and former Afghan minister of women’s affairs who ran for the presidency in 2004, created the Jalal Foundation to work for women’s rights in that country and has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban. Tim Sloan / AFP  

So how is it that the perpetrators are still getting away with a behaviour that’s as old as Methuselah but now condemned by most of the world?

When the international community arrived in Nigeria with drones and highly sensitive equipment, most of the world thought the girls would be found in a matter of hours.

They probably were. But getting them out of the clutches of Boko Haram safely was another issue. Now all those rescuers have gone silent.

Says Perry John Calderwood, Canada’s High Commissioner in Nigeria: Canada continues to demand the immediate and safe release of the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria. Canada supports our partners in assisting the Nigerians in their efforts in the search for the Chibok kidnapped girls and in their fight against Boko Haram.”

That’s politicalspeak for the real reason the international rescuers have nothing to report. As activist Maryam Uwais says: “I’ve had meetings with U.S. congressmen and the UN. They tell me they’re not here to lead the effort, they’re here to support the government in finding the girls.”

But, she says, everyone knows the government lacks the will to rescue the girls, which means the hands of the foreign advisers with their sophisticated surveillance equipment are tied: “The girls have become a bargaining chip in the ongoing combat between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.”

The recent news of a ceasefire between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military and the pending release of the school girls was welcome but so far unfounded, and reports surfaced this week that about 60 more girls were kidnapped in Garta, a village in a Boko Haram stronghold near the border with Cameroon, on Sunday.

In this May 19, 2014 file photo, Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark, cries as she display her photo in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria.

In this May 19, 2014 file photo, Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark, cries as she display her photo in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria. Sunday Alamba / CP

Esther Yakubu, whose 16-year-old daughter Dorcas is among the missing schoolgirls from Chibok, says she and other parents were told the government was aware of the locations where the girls are being kept and that negotiations were underway for their release. They were also told the government was wary of forcefully attacking Boko Haram’s hideouts, fearing the girls might be killed in the process.

“But then the government made a public announcement to the effect that negotiation with terrorists was not a feasible option,” Yakubu says. “We can only hope that the public announcement was just that — for public consumption — but in actual fact, negotiations are being held with the Boko Haram. We cannot fathom how the girls could be rescued alive without the option of negotiation.”

Says Dr. Allen Maamasseh, a veterinarian from Chibok who is assisting the families of the missing girls: “People try to make excuses for why the girls have not been found. It’s not about the north or the south or Christians or Muslims. The government soldiers are not motivated. If they were they could do away with Boko Haram in 24 hours.” 

In Iraq, the horrifying corralling of women and girls and stunning rescues continue apace, some of them involving the Canadian ambassador to Jordan and Iraq.

Canadians might remember Bruno Saccomani as the RCMP officer and prime ministerial security chief who was thrust into the spotlight in 2012 after an internal review suggested he was bullying his staff.

These days he’s waded into another kind of struggle. Onlookers were apparently astonished when the envoy, a lone foreigner, walked into the middle of the fray where Yazidi women were crossing to safety on a pontoon bridge from Iraq into Syria.

“Everyone was overwhelmed,” says Saccomani. “It was heart-wrenching to see these women, to hear their stories, to know some had committed suicide to avoid being taken by ISIS. This is definitely psychological warfare.”

One witness to the ambassador’s surprising foray into the escape route, Khidher Domle, a Yazidi man helping to coordinate the rescue, says Saccomani stood on the bridge as the women crossed, asking them how Canada could help and listening to their stories.

The ex-cop is nearly speechless when asked to describe the plight of the women he met: “This is unacceptable,” he says in measured tones.I’m hoping the perpetrators will be brought to justice and have to face us in court.”

Saccomani uses the pejorative term Da’ish, an acronym for the Arabic words for ISIL, to describe their modus operandi. “It’s always the same when Da’ish takes over a town — the men are eliminated, the women are taken,” he says flatly.

Domle takes it a step farther: “These women are being used as tools of war. They put them in areas where Iraqi and American armed forces are shooting at ISIS. They keep them in buildings that the Americans want to attack. They use the women and the girls as human shields. They also use them to get money from those who will pay to get the women back.”

Domle was on the bridge with Saccomani when two Yazidi teenagers told their terrifying story of being rounded up like cattle, crammed into trucks and driven to a town they didn’t know.

Over the telephone, Domle repeated their story: After being separated from the older women, girls were moved again to another strange town where they were denied food and water, made to cook and clean for the ISIL soldiers, he said. Then the commanders came and separated them again, this time the pretty girls were selected and driven away.

“At first they didn’t touch us,” the girls told Domle. “They said they would wait for the Sharia committee to decide what to do with us.” They were told if they converted to Islam they would be married to an ISIL commander and have a good life. If they refused they’d be sold as sex slaves. The girls soon learned that those who converted were passed around from one commander to another like sexual chattel.

Domle continues their story: “They watched a house beside them and decided the occupants were not with ISIL. They took a chance — a huge chance — and ran to the house. The family hid them for a while and then took them by car to the border with Syria. The girls are physically safe but emotionally distraught — not only because of their experiences but also because their mothers and sisters are still missing.” 

So, where are we now?

The Taliban is on the losing end of its insurgency. ISIL is being chased by an outraged international community. Goodluck Jonathan is quickly losing the smattering of credibility he started with.

But there needs to be an antidote so the next iteration of deranged actors is stopped before rounding up the women and girls.

First, observers agree, education needs to be delivered like a vaccine to wipe out ignorance. Second, the misogynist men who use genocide in the guise of a message from God need to be exposed by religious leaders as power-seeking thugs. And finally the gender wars have to stop.

Consider what women bring to the table: they’re more interested in policy than power; they want peace, not a piece of the turf. And women have long known that a sense of community is more valuable than a sense of control.

In the meantime, the lives of the Yazidi women in northern Iraq and the schoolgirls in Nigeria hang in the balance. Public opinion around the world is becoming a fierce cry to obliterate the bloodthirsty goals of the Jihadi terrorists. 

And mothers like Esther Yakubu are waiting and waiting. She tries hard to stay calm as she talks about her daughter during a phone call from Toronto to Chibok. But she has a level of fury that cannot be tamed: “If the government knows where they are then they should do all that is necessary to rescue them. The military should bring my daughter back in good health and alive.”

Sally Armstrong is a Canadian human rights activist, journalist and author. Her latest book is Ascent of Women: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter.