The legacy of silence: Why we ignore the rape of women from Guatemala to Syria

By — May 13, 2013

Just before 2 a.m. and nearly half a world away, I watched a guilty verdict from Guatemala scroll by tweet by tweet on my phone. Former President Efrain Rios Montt was convicted on May 10 of genocide and crimes against humanity and given 80 years in prison. As the news came through, I felt a satisfied chill—decades after the murder of 200,000 Guatemalans and the rape of 100,000 women, mostly Mayans, justice has actually come in our lifetime.

I watched this long-awaited verdict come down while in Beirut. For the past couple weeks I was in Lebanon and Jordan reporting on the rape and torture of Syrians, who are living with so many levels of pain and sadness it’s hard to begin to quantify them all. A little over a year ago, I was in Guatemala meeting the women of that war.

While clearly culturally different in many ways, the women I’ve met who lived through these conflicts share something in particular: Both groups have been terrified to talk about the brutality forced upon them. Both groups are doubted, ignored, and made invisible through shame.

In Guatemala, I heard women say they’d never told their husbands about their rapes because they feared losing their homes and families. In Jordan and Lebanon, I spoke to refugees, social workers, and psychiatrists who said the same thing about the women of Syria who’ve been violated. In fact, the survivors of this war are so frightened to talk about what happened to them, they only speak about their “neighbor” or “friend” who was raped.

The International Rescue Committee has said that rape is a primary reason why women are fleeing Syria. This photo was taken at Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan that houses more than 150,000 Syrians. (Lauren Wolfe)

This distancing, of course, is not always distancing. Every single professional I’ve spoken to who works with women refugees says there are just too many cases in which they can easily identify the victim as the person sitting in front of them. Why, then, won’t these women say that they themselves were raped?

“I’m sure if my husband knows he will divorce me the same day, the same hour,” one rape survivor told a doctor working in Amman whom I’ll call Dr. Meena.

From the suburbs of Homs, the survivor, 23, was on her own with her daughters in her house when shabiha (plainclothes militia) forces broke in at the end of last year. I’ve heard many stories now in which rape appears to be used as a means to flush out men in home raids—in this case, the woman said there were no men home, thinking the shabiha would leave without harming her. She was wrong. Three of them raped her. Her daughters were in the hall. They heard her screaming. She told Dr. Meena they thought she was just being beaten.

She didn’t tell anyone what happened to her until she told the doctor in December. Why not?

“I am responsible,” this woman said.

Responsible for her own rape.

And we wonder why women aren’t clamoring to show their faces.

In a society, as in Syria, that places their purity in their physical bodies, when women are no longer thought to be virgins, they are discarded like dirty tissues.

Take the story of another rape survivor from Homs Dr. Meena examined. This particular girl, 17, had lacerations on her vagina, painful UTIs, and vaginal infections—all of which went untreated until the doctor saw her in December. It took numerous visits for the girl to tell the doctor she was raped and to beg her not to tell anyone. Dr. Meena offered to help the girl with a gynecologist referral, thinking maybe there is a way to make her body look like she is still a virgin. In the meantime, her father is trying to force the girl into marriage.

Everything, everything tells this girl not to speak about rape.

Beyond divorce, I’ve heard multiple stories that detail honor killings after women have been raped in Syria—a survivor is shot by her own brother/husband/whoever in the family. Social workers and doctors who have interviewed rape survivors from Syria have told me that women believe that speaking about their rapes will end their lives.

The concept of purity, and honor, kills women.

As Valerie Hudson and her coauthors write in their 2012 book Sex and World Peace, the founder of a group called the Syrian Women Observatory, Bassam al-Kadi, said: “The killing of women because they are women is a worldwide phenomenon. The problem with us is not that we kill [women], while others do not, the problem is that we reward the killer by saying that he was defending his honor and therefore of good character.”

Stories of  honor killings are very hard to confirm since they are happening inside the hot war zone that is Syria, where journalists and human rights workers are not allowed to investigate. But let’s pretend for a minute that there are no honor killings at all. Now let’s pretend we ourselves are Syrian women survivors of rape and we think we’re going to be killed if we say something. Why would we tell?

And the problem doesn’t always begin and end with the survivors of sexualized violence not wanting to share their stories. Often it lies in the fact that there are few competent services in refugee areas to help women speak about their experiences.

One very active nonprofit assisting Syrian refugees told me they “prefer not to ask” about sexualized violence on home visits with families who’ve just arrived in Jordan. “We’d rather they come to us,” I was told. But how are these refugees supposed to break free of all this stigma and come forward to ask for psychological or other medical help? Most of the women I met aren’t even leaving their houses because they are so traumatized and frightened of their new surroundings. (Not to mention the discrimination Syrians are facing in Jordan and Lebanon, where prices are rising and streets are crammed with cars and anger at the refugees.) To be fair to this organization, their home visits usually take place with an entire family present—men too. So it likely isn’t usually the right situation in which to talk about something as “shameful” as rape.

But then, what is the right situation? When will these women—already vulnerable—ever find the “right time”?

I know some people continue to doubt that rape is happening as part of this war. That thinking is hard for me to understand after all the stories I’ve gathered.

Here’s an easy way to think about this issue differently.

I would ask that disbelievers take a minute to click around Syria Tracker to watch some videos of men being tortured, their throats cut, limbs severed, eyes plucked out. Or they could go to Zaatari, the refugee camp that houses more than 150,000 Syrians in the arid north of Jordan, as I did. It probably won’t take long for men to ask if they’d take a minute to watch some videos on cell phones, as I was asked to. Maybe they would be shown a video of a dead body being stabbed 30 times, as I was. Or maybe they’d watch another being kicked while the back of its skull hangs off. I saw that one too.

Talk to a few Syrians—men or women, doesn’t matter. They’d hear how special—and vulnerable—women are considered in this society. How women must be protected.

Why, then, is it so hard to imagine that women’s bodies are being used alongside men’s as a particularly effective tool of this war? That this precious commodity called “women” is the perfect envelope in which to send a message of domination and defeat in Syria?

Why is it so hard to think that women here too are being tortured in the ways they have been for so many wars?

Could it be because it is unthinkable? That women, noncombatants, are being physically and emotionally destroyed makes no emotional sense. How could such a thing really be happening?

Could it be because there is no “proof”? If so, take a look at this report from the United Nations for proof if that’s what’s needed; here are dozens of more reports we’ve gathered from NGOs, witnesses, and media reports. We have confirmation of many stories that resemble so many others. Is that number not high enough maybe? Do we need to be able to point to thousands of women and men sexually violated to say we condemn this and realize that these people need help?

Now look to Guatemala.

For 30 years, much of the world managed to deny the Guatemalan genocide. The decimation of the Maya people, along with thousands of women kept as sexual slaves or raped, went quietly into history for decades. As of May 10, that is no longer the case. We now have a court verdict that points fingers, names names, and makes visible what was once hidden.

Can’t we, for once, accept that sometimes there are things we can’t easily see that are terrible and disgusting and forcibly hidden and collectively decide that they must be addressed? Can’t we agree that women around the world have been silenced and shamed repeatedly whether it is in a single rape in Steubenville, Ohio, or in thousands of cases as in Guatemala—and in whatever the number will ultimately be in Syria?

Should we tell Dr. Meena’s patients to keep quiet, as everyone else around them tacitly has, or should we raise our hands and let these women—whether they are dozens, hundreds, or thousands—know we are listening and that they have our support? They do not need any more victimization. They need help. And they deserve justice.

For more on our work documenting sexualized violence in Syria, see this report on our findings at one year of crowdmapping and this story on how we are tracking a rumor of a "rape house" in Syria.