Syrian Civil War: Sexual Violence Against Men and Women is Widespread in Conflict

Unfortunately, it is not surprising to read that accounts of sexual violence are emerging from the ongoing conflict in Syria. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), rape is not only pervasive, but it is also a driving factor behind the rapidly growing numbers of Syrian refugees, both within and outside of the country.

What information is available points to government forces and the shabiha militia as the primary perpetrators of this sexual violence. We also know that it is being used against prisoners in Syrian detention facilities, and has been employed as a form of torture during interrogations.

With increasing international attention being paid to the conflict in Syria, and what an eventual transition period might look like, the American University Washington College of Law hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Post-Arab Spring: Syria’s Challenges to Protection and Accountability.” The panel featured Laila Alodaat, a Human Rights lawyer and a board member of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, Rafif Jouejati, the English spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) in Syria, and Director of FREE-Syria, and Blake Paterson, the Special Advisor at the Department of State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.

In the remarks made by the panelists, as well as the ensuing discussion, a number of important points were made that are elucidating both in terms of this particular conflict, and for an understanding of and responses to sexual violence in this, and other conflicts.

Ms. Jouejati focused on what is currently happening in Syria, which she argued is not a civil war, but a dictatorship waging war on a civilian population. She maintained that the death toll is beyond what the media has been reporting, starting with at least 65,000, and underscored the hundreds of thousands of registered refugees, and the 3 million internally displaced. She then read personal accounts of women, recorded by the IRC and the Women Under Siege Project, raped in front of family members, raped with objects, and even those who have had rodents inserted into their genitals.

She stated quite plainly that she places blame squarely on the regime for these actions.

Ms. Paterson spoke especially to challenges of documenting and developing hard numbers around the occurrence of sexual violence. There are the issues around stigma and trauma for victims, which impacts an individual’s desire to report, but there has also been a breakdown of communications. Much has been lauded about the use of electronics and social media during the Arab Spring, and while the use of cell phones to capture footage of brutalities, and YouTube to share such footage, has been a contributor to documentation efforts, rape is not as easily captured: “Video does not capture all crimes on equal footing.” In addition, there are (of course) issues around accountability and the verification of this kind of documentation.

Ms. Alodaat drew the room’s attention to the broader context in which this violence, and sexual violence in particular, is happening. There are, she argued, deep roots of unequal gender norms in Syria, and there is a long history of abusing women under the Baath regime. Syrian domestic law still maintains very discriminatory legislation, such as the decriminalization of honor killings and the fact that a rape victim can be forced to marry her rapist. The law reflects a prevalent attitude that women are symbols (of honor) and (sexual) objects, not human beings. She also spoke to the pre-war prevalence of domestic violence, arguing that half of the women of Syria face such violence, and that 7 out of 10 women are verbally abused regularly. 

It is with this in mind that we must engage in discussions of transition or justice, she argued. The women of Syria have learned from other countries that just because they are supporters and participants in the struggle (or the “backbone of the revolution” as both Alodaat and Jouejati asserted), this does not mean they are guaranteed the rights and freedoms they are fighting for. Ensuring that women are part of any peace process or negotiations, or the drafting of new legislation, will be hugely important, Ms. Alodaat argued, and so will implementing an efficient demobilization and disarmament, as women are greatly impacted by the success or failure of such efforts.

What is worth highlighting is the fact that while we were sitting in a room discussing sexual violence, we needed to be wary of perpetuating certain narratives that often exist around this issue. The first is that sexual violence is the rape of women; according to reports coming out of Syria, 20% of those violated are men and boys. 

The second is the narrative of victimhood that tends to surround women in such contexts. The reality is that women are organizing relief, delivering medical provisions, maintaining educational resources for kids who no longer have access to school, and even fighting. So yes, women are the primary targets for sexual violence, but portraying them as helpless victims is to do them a great disservice. 

Finally, we need to remember that sexual violence can also be used by certain men to justify violence against another group of men, in the name of “honor.”

Ultimately, we need to be nuanced in our discussions of this issue, and this in turn speaks to a broader failing in our collective understanding and treatment of sexual violence during conflict. The reality is that it remains extremely difficult to obtain hard numbers and facts around the occurrence of rape in conflict for many of the reasons cited above. We are susceptible to maintaining certain stereotypical narratives about this issue, and this kind of violence can be used as a pawn for those with other violent agendas. Finally, and perhaps most poignantly still, women are often not appealed to when addressing such violence, or creating mechanisms to prevent it in the future.

All three panelists were in agreement around the importance of ensuring that women participate in any future transitional efforts made, and that their rights are assuredly enshrined in legislation. In addition, while they felt that prosecutions and the end of impunity for sexual violence are important, they emphasized the need to focus on rebuilding in a way that returns normalcy to livelihoods, and eradicates the acceptance of the inequality and violence that women face in Syria on a daily basis.

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Joya Taft-Dick

Joya is originally from Vermont, but grew up moving around overseas as the daughter of UN World Food Program employee. She has spent the last 9 years working on, writing about, or studying human security, development and violence prevention, all with a focus on gender. Joya received her bachelors’ degree from Middlebury College, where she double-majored in Religion and French, and holds a MA from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, with a research focus on gender-based violence in conflict settings.

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