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

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs