In mid-November 2015, two mass graves were discovered in the northwest of Iraq. They were believed to hold the remains of Yazidis executed by Islamic State. One grave contained 70 elderly women while 60 younger women and children were found in the other. The larger grave is one of the largest ever found in the area.
The Yazidis or Yezidis are a Kurdish-speaking people who live principally in northern Iraq. They number from 500,000 to 600,000, with another 200,000 settled in other parts of the world. Their 4,000-year-old faith draws upon Zoroastrianism, Islam and other religions: this unique heritage, however, has long made the Yazidis victims of persecution in the region, where they are sometimes referred to as “devil-worshipers.” Yazidis contend that in the course of their history there have been 72 other attempts to wipe out their group.
The graves highlight a shift in the gendered angle of mass killings and enforced disappearances, as well as a shift in the gendered viewpoint of the involvement of women in the Middle East conflict. An extensive amount of literature has been dedicated to the gendered perspective of clandestine graves and enforced disappearances where the majority of victims are men. Rightly, women who survive the disappearance of male relatives are also found to be the victims of the crime.
In 2014 there were indications that Islamic State was about to overrun the Yazidi area of Sinaj in northern Iraq, and there were predictions that this would be followed by genocide against the Yazidi population. The reports warned of the murder of Yazidi men and the capture of women and children. What the newly discovered mass graves highlight is the fact that women – both young and old – and children, weren’t spared the atrocities, and many were used as sex slaves and eventually disappeared.
Over its nearly 20 years of operations and assistance to countries and governments around the world to address their missing persons issue, ICMP has not encountered the discovery of clandestine mass graves containing only the remains of women and children. Historically, the majority of those who disappear as a consequence of armed conflict are men. One exception is Mexico where, in addition to very substantial numbers of male victims of extreme violence, women have come to account for the majority of victims in some parts of the country, victims of trafficking and sexual enslavement, murder and disappearance, generally classified under the term ‘femicide’.
Enforced disappearance is a crime under International Law. As Amnesty International notes, “enforced disappearance is frequently used as a strategy to spread terror within society. The feeling of insecurity and fear it generates is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects communities and society as a whole.” 
Compounding specific cases of murder is the fact that female victims have often first been victims of rape and sexual exploitation before being killed and buried in clandestine graves – the location hidden so as to hide the crime.
As the UN Outreach Program on the Rwanda Genocide notes, rape as a weapon of war, and sexual slavery are also crimes under International Law. “Rape committed during war is often intended to terrorize the population, break up families, destroy communities, and, in some instances, change the ethnic make-up of the next generation. Sometimes it is also used to deliberately infect women with HIV or render women from the targeted community incapable of bearing children.” 
It should also be noted that rape as a tool of armed conflict, and the murder of women and children may be part of an attempt to disempower men in patriarchal societies within which their “roles” are to protect women and children.
The issue of women who are direct victims of killings and enforced disappearance speaks of the brutality and terror that the communities in the Middle East conflict face, a sign of a change in the gender component of violence not just in the region but around the world.
To read more stories from ICMP’s November Newsletter, please click here.