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

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' 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.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs