Leading human rights campaigners, US government officials and academics have gathered at a high-level conference at the University of Virginia to sound the alarm on the scale of ISIS violence against women and girls, and discuss strategies to defeat the “Da’ish”.

Dr Warner J Anderson, a recently retired Director of the International Health Division at the Department of Defense who served two tours in Iraq, was full of praise for their heroic efforts.
“They are defending their families and their homes but they are also defending the rest of civilisation in my mind.”

Dr Anderson said many of the delegates had talked about empowering women, but in his view they already had the power and the power of the gun.

“The commander in Kobane is a woman.  She is running the show, fighting back. The Peshmerga has integrated units and they have already taken women casualties. Every once in a while you just have to pick up a gun and do what you have to do to defend yourself.”

Dr Anderson said he refused to call the terrorists ISIL or Islamic State. He preferred “Da’ish”, the term used by Arabs for the group – although it stems from the Arabic translation of ISIL it is seen locally as highly disrespectful with negative overtones. He said calling them anything other than that was giving them “some kind of legitimacy.” This view was widely echoed by conference participants, who call on all media outlets, NGOs and the USG to begin using the term.

We must prevail in this battle of ideas

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, the Director of the Middle East Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called for the Da’ish to “be defeated on the battlefield of ideas”

“The terrible treatment of women and girls by ISIL has no place in today’s world,” Dr Esfandiari told the delegates at the Monday event.

She added: “They have to make clear that in the 21st century Islam does not and cannot condone rape, treating women as spoils of war, non-consensual marriage, and violence against women.  They need to win the hearts and minds for the correct interpretation of Islam.”

Dr Esfandiari said that ISIL fighters did not understand what the word shame meant.  Indeed it was proud to display its barbarism for all to see.

Bill Frelick, Director of the Refugee Program at Human Rights Watch, echoed the sentiment that “Normally we name and shame, but what do we do when the perpetrator has no shame?”. The answer, he believed, is that “we need to underscore the universality of human rights in the face of this exceptionalism. We must prevail in the battle of ideas”.

“Targeting women is much more effective than a bullet,  and much cheaper”

The Director of the Gender and Peacebuilding Center at the US Institute of Peace, Kathleen Kuehnast, described the scale of the refugee problem in the Iraq region.
She said the numbers of IDPs was equivalent to twice the population of Washington DC – with an estimated 57% under the age of 18. The treatment of the women refugees had been particularly terrible and the world had to understand why the men of ISIL did this.

“We need to look at hyper-masculinity problems. We have to understand what are the incentives… why it attracts so many young men.  Sexualised and gender-based violence is now a normal thing of war. But in the case of ISIL they have honed it to an art.  It is much more effective than a bullet and as the United Nations says, far cheaper,” continued Mrs Kuehnast.

Ultimately it is a crisis of “power, masculinity, religion, ideology and politics”

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the Chairman of the aid charity, AMAR US, explained what she believed where the reasons for the Da’ish’s treatment of women and girls.

“The family is the basic unit of society. It is that unit that dictatorships attack. If the family is against you then the community is against you.  If you fragment that then you can destroy it.  Most often the mother is at the heart of the family unit.”

The Baroness said AMAR – whose Patron is HRH Prince Charles – was doing its best to cope with the enormity of the refugee situation but funding was proving extremely difficult. Bodies like the United Nations had the money but it was not coming through to the NGOs that could make a difference.

Ambassador Steven Steiner, a senior consultant at the United States Institute for Peace, said empowering women helped build a safer world.

“Women are at the heart of communities and that’s why ISIL wants to destroy the women. It happened in Bosnia. Destruction of communities is a strategy.

Ambassador Steiner added: “ISIL are proud of what they are doing. They have even given kidnapped girls phones so they can ring their parents and tell them what is happening to them.”

The conference, jointly organised by AMAR US, The Presidential Precinct, and Morven and the UVA’s Women’s Center, was also attended by academic staff and students from the University of Virginia.

AMAR would like to thank our conference partners, The Presidential Precinct, Morven and The University of Virginia Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, for their incredible efforts to bring this successful effort together.

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