News / Middle East

Sexual Violence A Factor in Syrian Refugee Crisis

Turkey Syria
Turkey Syria
Cecily Hilleary

Rape is becoming increasingly widespread in Syria, where a civil war has been underway for almost two years, and recent studies indicate much of it is being carried out by troops and militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

One new study by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reports that rape has become so prevalent it is a factor in driving thousands of Syrian families into exile—either inside Syria or into neighboring countries. 

Another group investigating the prevalence of rape in Syria since the civil war started 21 months ago is Women Under Siege (WUS), part of the Women’s Media Center, which documents conflict-related sexual violence.

“What we are seeing in Syria is extraordinary prevalence, geographically widespread,” said Lauren Wolfe, director of WUS.  

Wolfe and others, however, say exact figures on the number of rapes taking place are nearly impossible to achieve because of the ongoing civil war and because many rape victim are reluctant to talk about their experience.

The WUS website maps more than 130 reports  in Syria that Wolfe says could involve thousands of women.  Though WUS encourages Syrian victims to report sexual violence directly to the website, Wolfe says the majority of the reports come from other sources on the ground, i.e., human rights groups, the United Nations and the international media. 

“We were all tied up in the town main square…We were afraid and asking for mercy. I was shaking. There were 30 of them with firearms and knives…They took the older women and children away and kept us, the younger women, in the square. They started with me…I eventually stopped moving. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I was suffocating. They smelled rotten, like death. They shouted, ‘You want freedom? This is freedom, freedom, freedom.’

“Ten beasts took turns raping me. When I looked around I saw my mom dead on the ground, covered with blood with all the rest. They killed them, even the children…One of them wanted to cut my neck, but his friend said, ‘She is dying anyway. Look how she is breathing.’ I was barely taking any breaths. Most of my ribs were broken. They dragged me and threw me in a garbage container.”  – Testimony of a young girl documented by WUS.

Civilian-directed

Sara Meger researches gender and international relations at Australia’s University of Melbourne.  She says most of the sexual violence is carried out by Syrian military forces and the allied shabiha militia.  Members of both groups, she says, seem to have used rape as a form of torture to extract information during interrogations and to punish the population for supporting the rebels.

There is no evidence to prove whether or not high-ranking military officials have sanctioned troops to commit acts of sexual violence.  However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says army and security force defectors indicate that “no action has been taken to investigate or punish government forces and shabiha who commit acts of sexual violence or to prevent them from committing such acts in the future.”

“What is currently happening in Syria is not substantially different from a number of other civil conflicts – probably most recently Sudan,” Meger said.  “In both of these civil wars, sexual violence has been primarily perpetrated by government forces or proxy forces for the government.”

She points to WUS data that include very few accusations against the rebels.

The reason for this is simple, according to Meger:  The rebel groups say they are fighting on behalf of the people against what they perceive as an illegitimate regime.

“They rely on the ‘hearts and minds’ of citizens as the basis of their support, not only symbolically, but also in material terms – civilians supply revolutionary groups with food, equipment, men, etc.,” Meger said. “Thus there’s a connection that would be broken if the armed groups were to start preying on the civilians.”

Women are not the only victims. Twenty percent of the cases WUS has documented involve men and boys.  This corresponds with a June 2012 report by HRW, Syria, Sexual Assault in Detention, which documents instances of men and boys who have been sexually abused—or witnessed such abuse—in detention centers, whether sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, rape and electroshock or beatings to the genitalia.

The Stigma of Rape

The recent IRC report is based on a series of studies IRC staff conducted among refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.  Alina Potts is an IRC Women’s Protection and Empowerment Emergency Coordinator who recently returned from Lebanon.  She says that because of the stigma of rape, it is very difficult for women to talk openly about their experiences.

“So we invite general conversation around the issues that women and girls are facing…and a lot of times, women will frame a story in terms of what happened to a “friend,” a “family member” or a “neighbor,” Potts said.  “In fact [they] may be actually talking about a personal experience, but because of the stigma, revenge or dishonor, they may feel safer talking about those things as if they happened to someone else.” 

The women describe being attacked either at home or in public by armed men, sometimes groups of men.  Women have been raped in front of family members or children.  The IRC says some women who finally make it into refugee camps where they believe they will be safe are also being victimized.  Few ever report these cases, either because they are ashamed or are afraid of retribution, the report says.

Meger says that what makes sexual violence so effective is that it exploits ideas about masculinity and femininity.  In societies where women’s honor is tied to their sexuality and men’s honor is tied to their women’s honor, sexual violence is particularly effective at ripping apart the social fabric that can underpin a resistance,” she said.

WUS’s Wolfe puts it very simply:  “Rape doesn’t just shame a woman.  It shames the entire family.  We are seeing women committing suicide, women killed in honor killings.  We’re seeing young girls married off after they’ve been raped—into forced marriages.”

The IRC is calling on international donors, including the United Nations, to make sexual violence a priority by increasing funding for specialized medical and psychological services. It says the United Nations also should work with local service providers to find ways to reduce risks of rape in refugee centers.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Kafantaris from: USA Ohio
January 22, 2013 7:57 AM
We have become callous to the great suffering of the people of Syria -- just as we had become callous to the great suffering of the Jews of Hitler’s Germany. History will be unkind.
The heck with Russia and China -- these two treat their own people no better.
We need to act now in Syria. And we are already far too late.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid