The cartography of suffering: Women Under Siege maps sexualized violence in Syria

By — March 28, 2012

When we hear about conflicts in foreign countries and imagine terrible acts, our thoughts don’t turn immediately to rape. We think of bombings and refugees and government suppression. If we think of sexualized violence at all, we may imagine a faceless, powerless woman, one unfortunate person who will eventually become a statistic—400,000 raped in Rwanda, 100,000 in Guatemala. When we hear about conflicts, we don’t imagine these stories. Or we consider them to simply be part of a larger horror.

But at Women Under Siege, our mission is to show the world that each woman raped is a person who has been illegally brutalized against her will, that she is part of a family and a community that may now be shredded. We aim to show that this woman, wherever she is, matters.

As part of this mission, we’re trying something new: telling egregiously underreported stories from Syria as they happen, with as much accuracy as possible. The blurred suffering of women who have been sexually violated in the raging but opaque Syrian conflict is now being made visible on our site, WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com.

We are gathering reports of rape, sexual assault, and groping—as well as the consequences of sexualized violence, including mental health issues and pregnancy. By utilizing Ushahidi crowdsourcing technology, which allows survivors, witnesses, and first-responders to report via email, Twitter (#RapeinSyria), or directly to the site, we are able to get these stories to you in real time.

A map points to where the attack happened, while we give deeper context when you click on the report. One report already on the map is headlined “Multiple government attackers rape 36 women near Kurin/Sahl Al-Rawj.” That takes you to the story of a woman who left her hiding place to try to save the life of her son and husband as the army advanced on her town. Soldiers bashed her with a rifle and tore at her clothes wildly, she said, taking turns raping her while she watched her husband die.

Our effort is being undertaken at many levels and with great caution to protect the vulnerable: We’re working with refugee communities in countries surrounding Syria to safely measure the exposure women may have had to sexualized violence before fleeing. We’re categorizing their stories by degrees of violence and by perpetrators (government forces or otherwise). As part of the collection and verification process, we are collaborating with Dr. Karestan Koenen, a professor and epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and Jackie Blachman-Forshay, a student at the Mailman School.

We have also partnered with Syrian activists living outside of the country (who we will not name for their safety), as well as various journalists and human rights and aid workers working with refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. They are helping us gather the stories—from relatives and friends, from news reports and Facebook—in an ever-widening network that reaches from the Middle East to the U.S.

This method of information-gathering—crowdmapping—allows the voices of the victims to be heard across the ether so they remain anonymous yet strong. (For a crowdmap of human rights violations that fall outside of sexualized violence, visit the nonprofit, volunteer effort SyriaTracker.crowdmap.com.)

By plotting each story on a map, we are not only making clear that these women’s stories are being heard, we are gathering valuable data that can help us detect the vital signs of the Syrian conflict zone. There is an old idiom in medicine that says, “You can’t diagnose a fever without taking a temperature.” So just as taking a temperature tells us so much about the health of a person, taking in the rate of sexual assault can quickly, quantitatively, and objectively tell us valuable information about the health of a whole population. This information can be used to pinpoint where and when survivor services need to be offered, from internally displaced persons camps to the conflict area itself. It has “the potential to make a critical impact on the collection of evidence of sexual violence in situations where access to victims is highly constrained,” says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based human rights organization Physicians for Human Rights.

Historically, sexualized violence has been reported months, years, and decades after a conflict, if at all, and justice has been slow to come with evidence uncollected. Our hope is that by gathering statistics and individual stories, we will be able to paint a clearer picture of this aspect of the humanitarian crisis. Not only will we show whether and how women are suffering from rape and its fallout—we will hopefully provide reporting that can become the base for potential future prosecutions, helping to hold perpetrators accountable.

Now when we imagine these conflict zones, we can see tangible numbers and stories that are not gathered when it’s too late and evidence has been destroyed. We can read live reports of suffering made plain to the world, and we can imagine immediate attention being paid to women who are being raped.

We can imagine this, but not without your help. Please spread the word so we can make it happen: WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com.

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege.

Catherine M. Mullaly, MD MPH, is a global health physician and anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.