Sexualized violence in Syria: Keeping track of a crisis in motion

By — December 19, 2012

On a still warm day in October, I sat on a panel of mostly Syrian women at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. One woman wore a wool scarf draped around her shoulders in the black, red, and green of the Free Syrian Army. Most wore a hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Turn by turn, we described our work documenting and assisting Syrian women and children who were drawn into the ongoing Syrian conflict.

It was an afternoon weighted with pain and frustration.

I had presented our work from the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project in public before, telling the United Nations how we document reports of sexual violence on our live, crowd-sourced map. It shows how Syrian women have become central targets of sexualized violence, and how all sides, but mostly the Syrian Army, are reportedly raping and attacking women in numbers that are hard to verify, but certainly too high.  

But I had never felt as shaken as I did that day in Washington. Around me were the women of this war: their mothers, cousins, and grandmothers, who hide every day from snipers, bombs, and would-be attackers in Syria. They had spent days trying to get lines into Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs. They had lost family members and friends. When I told the story of the girl who jumped off her family home’s balcony to end her life after surviving rape in detention, or that of the woman whose baby’s throat was slit in her arms, the despair in the room was more prominent than it had been when I’d told these stories to diplomats or journalists. The despair, for once, was urgent.  

The room was visibly moved, as was I, at this National Press Club panel while we presented what we know about the suffering of Syrian women. (Rachel Halder)

And why shouldn’t it be? On our map, we’ve documented more than 115 unique reports of sexualized violence since the beginning of the conflict against potentially thousands of women and girls, men, and boys. They range from acts of groping and attempted rape to sexual enslavement and gang rape in which the victim is killed. In fact, more than 20 percent of our reports show that women or girls are murdered—or die, or kill themselves—after rape in this war. That is an obvious indicator that much evidence is already being lost about the kinds of atrocities being committed in Syria.  

War is, by nature, messy. What makes it difficult to understand it comprehensively is the silence that surrounds much of war. Sexualized violence is, by culture and conditioning, hidden away. Silence reigns so long as shame remains attached to rape around the world. Previous efforts to determine how many women and men are victims of sexualized violence in conflict have always been difficult and ad hoc. In Bosnia, for instance, researchers tried to determine how many women were raped by measuring the number of unexpected babies born during the war. Creative, but an inherently problematic methodology.  

This is why we are trying to live-track what’s happening in Syria. By plotting each report on a map, we are hoping to not just collect documentation that may otherwise be lost, but also to make people pay attention to the victims. The work also gives us indicators of what kinds of medical and psychosocial services may be required, and where. It is also documentation that may one day be used toward evidence in potential war crimes trials.  

So far, we’ve determined that that there is an immense human rights crisis unfolding for women, men, and children in Syria, even if we don’t know exact numbers. But does it really matter if it’s in the hundreds or tens of thousands? Is not one woman raped, shamed, and divorced because of the crime committed against her one too many?  

Behind each number on our map is a life—a family, a whole community—now potentially destroyed by rape and sexualized violence. Purity is highly prized in Syrian society, and the perpetrators in this war are actively polluting women’s lives.  

I look at reports of sexualized torture (the women shocked before rape in order to immobilize them; the ones who had mice inserted into their vaginas) and I try to figure out why the world is not collectively crying out for these horrors to stop. When I sat in that room in Washington recently, I knew the women around me could not understand it either.  

What will it take to bring the misery the Syrian people are enduring to an end?

(This op-ed originally ran on Syria Deeply.)