When we hear about mass acts of sexual violence in conflict, it is usually well after the fact, when little can be done to prevent or directly respond to it. The numbers collected are almost always well below the reality. They often remain just that: numbers. But after years spent trying to get this particular issue on the global agenda, all of this may finally be changing. The Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project (WUS) is pioneering an effort to document and collect data on the occurrence of sexual violence in Syria, the “first time anyone has tried to measure such atrocities in an ongoing conflict” in real-time.
In conjunction with epidemiologists at Columbia University, the Syrian-American Medical Society, Syrian activists, journalists and other NGOs working on the ground, those involved in WUS are collecting data on where, how, and by whom sexual violence is occurring.
Their data tells us that both men and women have been victims of sexual assault, with women making up 80% of the total number of victims, and ranging in ages from 7 to 46 compared to male victims between the ages of 11 and 56. The vast majority of the attacks have been committed by government and shabiha (plainclothes militia) forces, with the FSA committing less than 1% and unknown forces about 15%.
WUS also tells us that “rape appears to be utilized during this conflict in horrifyingly soul-crushing, creative ways.” The rape and sexualized torture of detainees often occurs in front of family members, or other women detainees.
This kind of information (who is doing what, where and why) is hugely important for a number of reasons, as cited by WUS. First, it provides information to humanitarian actors on the ground as to where, and in what capacity, services are needed. Second, it informs refugee relief, for example, in which countries victims of sexual violence are seeking refuge. Third, this data can contribute towards holding perpetrators better accountable in the long-run.
It also serves as an important reminder that a) it is not just women who are targeted for sexual violence, but men and boys as well, and b) rape in conflict is not just an unfortunate by-product but a pre-meditated, and effective tool of violence.
Finally, because this really is the first time such data is being mapped as it happens, it can potentially be used as a model for future sexual violence data collecting. As it stands, there are some concerns about the legitimacy and verifiability of the data, which can come through such mediums as Twitter and Facebook. There are also conflicting reports on the extent to which sexual violence is actually occurring in Syria.
Still, WUS maintains that "we’ve determined that that there is an immense human rights crisis unfolding for women, men, and children in Syria, even if we don’t know exact numbers.” They have certainly been the first at using various data collection methods, including social media, to map sexual violence in a currently on-going conflict – and in so doing have managed to keep the issue both in the media, and on the minds of policy makers. For those reasons alone, it is arguably an important beginning in an effort to end this kind of brutality.