In the dark dungeons of the notorious Badush prison in Mosul in Northern Iraq, a thirteen year old Yazidi girl is chosen. Like many others, she is presented as a gift to one of the loyal ISIS fighters, who just ransacked Sinjar. Her night that started with a kidnapping and incarceration was interrupted briefly by a beautician. The rape immediately followed. Her dark night started in June of this past summer and has not yet ended. 

This scene is grim, but versions of it are being replayed across wide areas of Syria and Iraq. This same fate has befallen hundreds of others following ISIS’ takeover of their area. Yazidis in particular, a religious minority that is often viciously stereotyped and denigrated, and has been long persecuted, are vulnerable to ISIS’ confirmed practice of kidnapping women and girls and using them as sexual slaves and “rewards” for their fighters and allies.  


ISIS has kidnapped an estimated 4,000 Iraqi girls and women from Yazidi and other minority groups for the purpose of selling them to locals or donating them to loyal jihadists. Sadly this is not unique -- traces of sexual slavery are still evident in various parts of the world, despite legislation prohibiting it -- but these crimes are being committed on an extraordinary scale by ISIS. While these barbaric rapists are fulfilling their sexual perversions the world is silently watching. Instead, the international community must work to free the Iraqi women and bring accountability to the chronically neglected issue of the victimization of women in wars.

The kidnapped women and girls are generally separated into small groups. Their price varies between $25 and $1000. Some are as young as 12 years old.  ISIS has beheaded 17 of them. There have been at least 11 reported cases of suicide, according to an email response from the Human Rights Department at Iraq’s Foreign Ministry to this writer. As described by Liz Sly of the Washington Post, only a conversion to Islam can “upgrade” the status of these captives from prison inmates to “comfort wives.” Those who make the choice are “promised a good life” with a house of their own and a Muslim husband.  

In response to this shocking crisis, Yazidi Americans founded the Sinjar Crisis Management Team. A passion for their people and a feeling of abandonment drew activists from Texas, Nebraska and Washington, DC together to try to raise awareness about the plight of Yazidis. He tells stories of young girls being raped by old men, including the 13-year old. Murad Ismail, a member of the group, stressed in an exclusive interview that they are advocating efforts to release the kidnapped women. Ismail believes their lobbying helped prompt the US administration to rescue thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar. But the group will consider their efforts unfinished business until all women and girls are safely returned to their families.  

It is high time for the international community to demonstrate leadership by initiating the process of protecting and freeing these helpless Yazidi women and girls. For example, 600-800 women are currently held in Tal Afar city north of Mosul and are being subjected to physical and psychological torture, according to the Iraqi government data. One option, being pushed by the Sinjar Crisis Group, is to arm the Yazidis in Iraq. “We have thousands of fighters who are willing to take on the mission of freeing our hostages,” says Ismail. 

However, a more plausible option is for the growing anti-ISIS international coalition to incorporate the objective of rescuing the kidnapped into its evolving strategy. “Special forces can rescue the abducted women as long as the international community takes such an action in coordination with the Iraqi government,” Ambassador Hassan Janabi, head of the Human Rights Department at Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview.  

In his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAfter the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy, and the politics of rage Former Obama White House adviser pleads guilty to wire fraud MORE alluded to the issue, although without implying any hint of an imminent action, when he complained that, “mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war.”  In September the State Department issued a press release that was an obvious attempt to boost awareness of the plight of Iraqi women. “We need to ensure the horrendous treatment of women and girls is front and center,” Catherine Russell, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues said. However, these women and their families could be forgiven for thinking the issue actually remains on the back burner. 

It may not be possible to immediately free all the kidnapped girls and women due to the scope of the conflict with ISIS and the geographical dispersal of the captives in various locations. Some of these women and girls can be freed only once ISIS is destroyed. However, a major start can and should be made right away. There are reported instances of a concentration of victims in one building or discrete location. Such concentrations provide a meaningful and actionable opportunity for focused rescue operation. Regional and global powers have a responsibility to act, if they can, when they know of such a large group of captives. The scope of the overall problem cannot be an argument against taking action when possible to free large numbers of abused women.  

Of course, the rescue of the women and girls, even when completed, should not be the end of the story. Local, national and international tribunals must enforce accountability. This must be part of the development of an international climate that rejects the abuse of women -- whether systematic sexual slavery by ISIS or everyday abuses in countries like Egypt and India where rape and sexual harassment are endemic. “Sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is; it can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war," Zainab Hawa Bangura​, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict said. 

The 13-year old Yazidi girl, and all the other's like her, must be freed from a life of sexual slavery. The international community must make the liberation of these victims a priority in its campaign against ISIS. 

Haikal is a Middle East analyst at the American Task Force on Palestine, a think tank in Washington, DC. She tweets @talamay.