Sexual violence in Syria: acting on what we know

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian people were late in joining the Arab Spring and within months after they did civil unrest descended into war. As the years go by, the range of atrocities committed in Syria appears to defy those covered by international law. There are arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention, and use of civilians as hostages. The most reported incidents are use of chemical and explosive weapons in civilian areas, starvation of besieged populations and the targeting of hospitals, schools and markets to force surrender.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in comparison the use of sexual and gender-based violence has received little attention. This is in part because of the inherent difficulties in documenting sexual violence – chief among them is under- and delayed reporting due to reluctance of survivors to share experiences that could lead to rejection by their families and communities. It is also because other tactics of war, like aerial and ground bombardments, are more lastingly visible and more easily documented for that reason. By and large, documentation of sexual violence, in any context, relies on victim and witness testimony. Bombardments, on the other hand, are documented using supporting material such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery that corroborates witnesses’ accounts. Crucially, witnesses of bombardments can speak without fear of stigma or feelings of shame.

Challenges in documenting sexual violence explain why it has taken so long for comprehensive overviews of the situation on the ground to become public. While as early as September 2011 reports emerged of Syrian Government forces committing sexual violence during home raids, it is only in the last year that in-depth accounts on the extent and use of sexual violence in Syria were published. In 2017, investigative journalist Marie Forestier published a report on rape as a tactic of war by the Assad regime. On the occasion of the seventh year of the uprising, the Syria Commission of Inquiry published a report covering sexual and gender-based violence by a number of perpetrators, including detailed violations by Government forces and associated militias.

Together, these reports document the use of sexual violence since the 2011 demonstrations up to last year. They show that the use of sexual violence has changed – but not stopped – throughout the conflict. Initially, Government forces conducted mass arrests of demonstrators and their supporters in their homes and at checkpoints. Most of those arrested were men and boys. When the wanted males were not found, women and girls were arrested to pressure their male relatives to surrender. Female protestors and activists were also arrested. Sexual violence occurred from the moment of arrest and throughout detention. In Government detention facilities, women and men were raped to force confessions and to provide information, with men most commonly raped with objects. Some women were gang raped, others were raped repeatedly by different officers. On occasion, senior officers raped detainees and in other instances gave permission for their subordinates to do so. There is no reported instance of officers being disciplined for their acts. Continue reading

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