Our testimony to the UN today on sexualized violence in Syria

By — July 18, 2012

The UN asked me to present the first findings of a data analysis of our crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria as the Security Council gears up to vote on international sanctions--potentially on Friday. Below is my testimony to a room that contained members of the council from France, Portugal, the European Union delegation, Egypt, Italy, and perhaps a few members from Syria (the jury's out on that).

The Women’s Media Center’s project Women Under Siege was started by Gloria Steinem to figure out what we’ve missed along the way when it comes to rape in war. From the Holocaust onward, we’ve documented sexual abuses committed from Bangladesh to Egypt. The idea is to figure out how stigma, shame, and death has prevented us from knowing fully what occurred in these wars.

Right now, we have the ability as never before to take a very close look at what’s happening in an ongoing conflict. With the use of new technologies that allow for the collection of information in real-time, we’ve been able to gather enough stories that give us an idea of what is going on in terms of sexualized violence in Syria.

What we’ve found points to the fact that sexualized violence in this conflict, as in nearly every other recorded conflict, is being used as a weapon of war. We are at a crucial moment—unlike in Bosnia or Rwanda, in which hundreds of thousands of women and men were raped, but we did not know until after the fact, we have a chance right now to stop these atrocities.

At the end of March, our project launched a crowd-sourced map to collect these stories. We’ve since gathered nearly 100 reports involving potentially thousands of women who have experienced rape, sexual torture, and often death.

At the end of June, a team of epidemiologists at Columbia University’s school of public health took 81 stories we’d amassed so far, from the onset of the conflict in March 2011, and broke them down into many more separate pieces of data on everything from rape to the consequences of sexualized violence, such as depression, HIV infection, and unwanted pregnancy.

Many more victims are included in these reports, but the vagueness of much of the information does not allow us to give an estimate of the total number. For example, one report tells of an incident in which the Syrian army allegedly raped 36 women while another speaks of a doctor who is treating some of the “2,000 girls and women raped throughout Syria.”

Our data, though largely anecdotal, gives us a sense of the scope and impact of sexualized violence in Syria. It appears to be widespread, not limited to any particular city, and often involves rape.

Here you can see the map we created. Those red dots indicate particular stories, again which involve dozens of women or men. People can come to the map and submit their own stories, but most often my team has ferreted them out from our sources in the region, news outlets, and social media sites like Facebook.

This is a closer look at the map. You can zoom in to see each dot which indicates number of reports plotted on specific towns.

I’d like to share with you a few of our reports. But first I want to tell you a little more about what we found in our data.

Eighty percent of the victims here are women, and even children as young as 7. The majority of women experienced rape, while about a third of the sexual attacks on men were rape as opposed to other kinds of sexual assault.

In 42 percent of the incidents of sexualized violence against women that we found, the victims were allegedly attacked by multiple people at once, suggesting a disturbingly high rate of gang rape.

The major finding of our work is that Syrian government forces have allegedly carried out nearly 70 percent of the sexual attacks in our reports.

The deputy director of Physician for Human Rights said that “the fact that a large portion of the alleged crimes involved multiple attackers indicates possible coordinated, orchestrated, or systematic violence without restraints on the behavior of government and other forces.”

Here you can see our data breakdown in terms of who is perpetrating these attacks. The blue represents sexual assaults on men, and the red on women. As you can see, all of the attacks on men have been carried out by government or shabiha forces. That is due to the fact that 75 percent of our reports of attacks on men occurred within detention facilities.

The majority of the alleged attacks on women have been carried out by government forces as well.

Here is a breakdown of the kinds of attacks we are seeing. As you can see it ranges from groping to rape to gang rape. I want to now tell you some of the specifics of our reports.

When you click through our map, you can read detailed reports on each case. We’ve worked to gather as much information as possible in a nearly impossible reporting environment. As a journalist who works to the highest standards of objectivity and ethics and a researcher who is deeply committed to finding all the available information on attacks by all sides in this conflict, I have put onto the map stories that now require triangulation and further details.

We know that this is preliminary information. There is nothing that substitutes getting in there and talking to individuals, something that the government has made impossible right now.

So here is just one of our reports. In this one, a couple who spoke with Syrian refugees in Jordan says that they met with a 15-year-old girl who was held, raped, and sexually tortured for 10 days in an apartment. During that time, she was injected with a substance that immobilized her and mice were inserted into her vagina. After this torture, she was transferred by her captors to Syria’s Palestine Security Branch in Damascus, she said. She was then dumped and left to die in a Damascus suburb.

This is a photo of a girl named Zaynab [photograph by Matilde Gattoni]. She is a 16 year-old girl from Homs who fled to Lebanon in January. There she told a photographer that she left Syria because her teen girlfriends at school had been kidnapped by Syrian army soldiers, raped, and then killed.

This echoes a recent testimony printed in The Telegraph (UK), in which an Assad supporter and shabiha militia member admitted to raping and killing.

He received a salary each month to act indiscriminately, with a bonus for each person that he captured or killed. He said the government supplied him with his weapon and that he was exempt from Syrian law.

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power--if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could,” he told The Telegraph.

This shabiha member admitted in specific detail to one rape, while adding that his commander had raped many times. This behavior is “normal,” he said.

He and his commanding officer were driving through Aleppo, a commercial hub in northern Syria, when a student from Aleppo University passed them in the street, he said.

“It was daytime and I was driving around the city with my boss,” he said. “She was passing on the street. I said to my boss, 'What do you think about this girl? Is she not beautiful?'

"We grabbed her and put her into the car. We drove to an abandoned home and we both raped her. After we finished we killed her. She knew our faces and our neighbors, so she could not live."

We’ve been able to discern particular patterns in our work, which we confirmed with other international human rights organizations. These patterns include the rape of women at checkpoints; the violation of women who are brought to jails to be raped in front of their husbands and the rape of the male detainees themselves. A number of reports of mass rapes seem to occur after the army bombs a town – then shabiha forces come in and loot houses and rape and kill women. We have multiple reports of this kind of attack that includes hundreds of women raped, often in front of their husbands and children.

One woman told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat in June that she fled Syria after she was forced to watch her three daughters be raped and killed.

She said: “The security forces and the shabiha took whole families outside after destroying their homes. They stripped my girls from their clothes, raped them then killed them with knives. They were shouting: ‘You want freedom? This is the best brand of freedom.’ You could only hear the screams and the cries of the little ones asking for help, but this did not make them show any mercy. I could not tolerate the all the slaughter. I passed out.”

The woman said she believes her daughters were targeted because their “father had joined the revolution.”

This slide shows a breakdown of the consequences of sexualized violence in Syria so far in our reports. What I really want you to see here is that tall bar that indicated “death.” That shows that 20 percent of the women in our reports were killed after being raped. That is a terrifying statistic in that it tells us that there is potentially a massive number of women and men who have been raped and then killed with no one ever hearing about the double atrocity committed against them. It is a crime upon a crime.

This woman had fled a town in Syria near the Lebanese border just three days before this picture was taken [photograph by Matilde Gattoni]. Her family decided to leave Syria because a few days earlier the Syrian Army had entered their house and stolen most of their belongings. When the family came home they found several pairs of women’s underwear hanging in the living room and words written on the walls that said: ‘You are lucky your women were not here’—implying that if they had been there, the soldiers would have raped them all.

A few days later, when the woman was home, the army came back. She was holding her baby in her arms. A soldier took his knife and cut the baby's throat. The baby died in her mother’s arms. The family decided then that they would all leave Syria because they were afraid that the soldiers would soon rape their women. It had happened to a lot of their neighbors.

This woman wants to return home. Until the Syrian government allows full access to human rights monitors, she cannot. Until the Syrian government can show us a single example that they have arrested a single soldier or shabiha member who has raped a woman, a girl, a man, or a boy, she cannot.

We are joining today with multiple human rights organizations in adding our voices to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s call for the UN Security Council to refer the atrocities being committed in this conflict to the International Criminal Court. We call for the Security Council to condemn human rights violations including sexualized violence. We call for the UN supervision mission in Syria to contain relevant experts who can monitor and document sexualized violence and other human rights violations.

The Syrian government must be on notice that every rape is now a war crime. There must be, and there will be, accountability.