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.
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.