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Sexual Violence in Syria Used as Tool to Instill Fear and Shame


Paulo Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, arrives with Karen Abuzayd, member of the Commission before the launch of their report on sexual and gender-based violence in Syria at the UN office in Geneva, March 15, 2018.

Rampant sexual and gender-based violence is used by Syria’s warring parties to instill fear in the civilian population and to humiliate and shame their victims into silence, according to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

“It is utterly repugnant that brutal acts of sexual and gender-based violence continue to be perpetrated throughout Syria during seven years by most warring parties,” said Paulo Pinheiro, Commission Chair.

“For seven years, the victims of this brutal conflict repeatedly underscore the overriding importance of accountability for all crimes and violations committed,” said Pinheiro.

“Yet, it is particularly repulsive that SGBV [Sexual, Gender-based Violence] violations by warring parties including government forces and affiliated militias, anti-government armed groups and terrorist organizations and their affiliates continue to go unpunished.”

A report released March 15, said U.N. investigators found sexual and gender-based violence was pervasive throughout Syrian society.

The report, “I lost my dignity; Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic,” is the Commission’s first comprehensive look at this phenomenon between March 2011, when the Syrian uprising began, and December 2017.

All Syrians at risk

It is based on testimony from 454 survivors, relatives of survivors, defectors, healthcare practitioners, lawyers and members of affected communities.

“These violations affect Syrians from all backgrounds, including men and boys, though women and girls are disproportionately impacted, and continue to be victimized on multiple grounds,” said Pinheiro.

A panel of experts convened at the United Nations on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council examined why the sexual horrors, which have been perpetrated against countless thousands of innocent victims, have gone largely unaddressed by parties to the conflict for so many years.

“For any lasting peace to hold, regardless of military losses or victories, there needs to be an accounting of the SGBV crimes,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, Commission Member.

“Women and girls, and survivors of such crimes need to have a voice in the peace process to ensure accountability and full inclusion in the public and social life of Syria,”

AbuZayd said these crimes are consistently under-reported, largely due to the social and cultural stigma attached to such incidents.

“It frequently takes months or even years for survivors to be able to discuss their experiences if they ever do, given that they are often blamed for the events and for bringing shame to their families.

“Syrian women and girls who feel responsible for dishonoring their families often conceal the abuse they endured, sometimes from their own relatives,” she said. “Some interviewees have indicated that it is worse for a girl to be raped than to be killed. In some cases, victims of rape have been subjected to honor killings from their own families.”

Abuses detailed

The report describes the horrific abuse to which women and girls have been subjected in Syria’s detention centers, including intimate and humiliating body searches by male officers and rape during interrogations. Many women and girls reported multiple rapes, including gang rapes.

The investigators were told that torture methods used on male detainees, including boys, often included rape with objects, electrocution of genitals, and genital mutilation.

“For male victims of rape, the psychological consequences after their release can be very severe,” said AbuZayd.

“Men and boys told us repeatedly how they felt they had lost their masculinity and were unable to confide in relatives and friends what happened to them. Some men became impotent as a result of sexual torture and felt guilty for being unable to father children.”

The Commission said the sexual and gender-based violence committed by the warring parties breeched the most fundamental human rights and humanitarian laws. While all parties were guilty of these crimes, it said the worst offenders were the Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and affiliated militias.

“These forces perpetrated rapes during ground operations, house raids, at checkpoints and in detentions. The most severe cases were recorded in the early years of the conflict, with fewer cases being recorded in 2016 and 2017,” said Serena Gates, SGBV adviser to the Commission.

The report also accused terrorist organizations Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (led by former Jabhat al-Nusra command) and Islamic State of “causing severe physical and psychological harm to women and girls” throughout areas under their control.

It noted that during the height of its power, Islamic State’s brutal practices included stoning of women and girls to death on charges of adultery, executing gay men by throwing them off buildings and forcing marriages of Sunni girls and women to IS fighters.

“These acts amount to war crimes and seriously contravene international human rights norms,” said the report.

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