Last year on the anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, I wrote about the disappearing girls in Syria.
A year later, the whereabouts of many women and girls are still unknown. There are an estimated 3,000 missing Yazidi and likely as many missing Christian women and girls. We don’t know exactly how many women and girls are missing because their disappearance isn’t always reported. This can be due to fear, stigma around trafficking, and forced marriages.
Girls and women have been abducted by various forces throughout Syria, but sexual slavery and forced marriage are a key part of ISIS ideology.
In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines – even putting them in a pamphlet for mass distribution – on keeping slaves. In 2015, they followed up with more detailed guidelines on when and how they could sexually assault and rape enslaved women.
That same year, they systematically attacked Assyrian villages, capturing Christian women and girls as young as nine. Women from Bangladesh and other countries have also been trafficked into Syria. In 2016, the group trafficked thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Iraq to Syria.
Women and girls in Syria, like women and girls in all conflicts, suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the world largely ignores them.
This week, Nadia Murad wrote an article: Prioritizing ISIS over Survivors. She asked why the global community spends so little “on the survivors, on healing their wounds and communities, on freeing them to live again?”
But women have mobilized themselves. Many fought to escape ISIS, some losing their lives in their battle. Survivors tell stories of enslaved women supporting each other to find subversive forms of resistance.
Women created spaces and even villages, like Jinwar, for women and children only to ensure their freedom and protection. One third of Kurdish combatants are women who engaged in direct battle with ISIS and are responsible for liberating ISIS-held areas of Syria like Raqqa. If one positive thing emerges from this this relentless and brutal war, it is women liberating women.
As the last ISIS stronghold breaks down, ISIS fighters are being forced to release hundreds of enslaved women and girls. Yet many will never be free.
As I know from working in conflicts, when a power is defeated the people who practice its ideology don’t go away. They simply go underground.
As ISIS loses political control, men with enslaved women and girls can keep them by false claims of marriage, including “short contract marriages.” These “marriages” are a type of trafficking, where girls and women endure systematic rape by one temporary “husband” after another.
Still, sometimes what is happening in Syria bleeds into our own communities. A Google search of “Syrian girls for sale” shows that the distance between injustice in Syria and in our communities may not be that far after all.
It hurts to feel that we can do very little to stop the widespread sexual violence in Syria and support released survivors. Yet disconnection and powerlessness are illusions. We can have an impact on human trafficking in our corner of the world, and the shared struggle, shared purpose and shared values link us with women and girls a world away.
Here are a few ways that we can all fight against human trafficking:
– Learn the signs of human trafficking, and know local reporting protocols.
– Volunteer and support anti-trafficking organizations in your community.
– Buy products from organizations that employ and support survivors, like my personal favorite survivor-focused enterprise, White Field Farm.
– Let your local and national government know that you care about the freedom, safety and dignity of girls and women. Choosing which pressing social justice issue to fight for can be overwhelming, but speaking out about other issues does not preclude speaking out against trafficking.
– Remember that sex trafficking is one type of trafficking. Others being forced labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and use of child soldiers. Learn your slavery footprint, and work to reduce it.
As some Syrian women and girls are being released and as others remain enslaved, we have to be careful not to link this type of mass exploitation with the Syrian war.
Trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls exists everywhere.
To end it globally, we must expose and fight its local forms. In doing so, we are participating in the global struggle for freedom and dignity of women and girls. By standing with survivors right where we are, we stand with them everywhere – including in Syria.