The desperate plight of thousands of women and girls who belong to the Yazidi religious minority community in Iraq is one of the most disturbing in the world today. They are victims of a systematic 21st-century horror.

Ethnic cleansing by Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq since 2014 has displaced, killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Yazidis.

Snatched from their communities, thousands of females have been repeatedly tortured, gang-raped, starved, bought and sold into sexual slavery and forced to “marry” their tormentors. Some of the girls are only eight years old. Many have seen their mothers and sisters abducted and their male relatives slaughtered.

Some Yazidi women and girls have suffered beyond endurance. They’re held captive to be traded at “market” among IS militants. Their fate is a cruel one, their daily existence harrowing. Many have attempted suicide. Others, like Lamyaa Haji Bashar (29) and Dalal Ahmed Chasu (45), have managed to survive, escape and tell their horrifying stories.

Both Lamyaa and Dalal come from Kucho village in Iraq’s northern district of Sinjar, near the border with Syria. Their tragedy began when IS militants attacked Kucho three years ago, killed all the men, kidnapped the girls and exploited them as sex slaves. Lamyaa was sold five times among the militants and was forced to make bombs and suicide vests in Mosul after they executed her brothers and father. She escaped and found refuge in Germany. Dalal was given sanctuary in Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Lamyaa has since become a spokesperson for women afflicted by the IS campaign of sexual violence. She’s raised awareness about the plight of the Yazidi community. She continues to help women and children who were victims of IS enslavement and atrocities. In 2016, Lamyaa was jointly awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, along with another Yazidi woman survivor. The award is given to individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights and have drawn attention to human rights violations.

Despite the brave testimony of escaped survivors like Lamyaa and Dalal, thousands of Yazidi women remain under the control of IS militants.