Sexual Violence in the Syrian Conflict

August 30, 2012

The Arab Spring movement in 2011 demonstrated the power of technology like email, texting, and social media to mobilize resistance to autocratic regimes. A year and a half later, the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege, a human rights group, is working to use the same technology to draw the world’s attention to accounts of rape and sexual violence in a part of the world where the Arab Spring revolution is still being fought: Syria.

The goal is to produce a crowd-sourced map that highlights facts, figures, and stories reported by victims. Faculty member Karestan Koenen, associate professor of Epidemiology serves as lead epidemiologist on the project.

Syria has been in conflict since March of 2011, when anti-government forces began a movement to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party. The fighting has left indelible scars on the country as government and opposition forces battle it out in small towns and large cities. Rape is, sadly, part of the tragic landscape.

Conflict invites this form of violence as “social disorder increases and social norms and morays are broken down,” says Dr. Koenen. “We see increased rates of rape in groups with hyper-masculine identity like the military.”

A Crime of the Ages

There is a long history of rape during times of conflict. In many societies, even as far back as ancient Rome, the rape of the women and children of defeated populations was seen as one of the spoils of war. In modern times, sexual violence continues in war-torn countries, often as a means to dehumanize the enemy. But now more attention is being paid to the causes, the perpetrators, and the victims.

The map is similar to Syria Tracker, a crowd-sourced effort that records the number of people missing, killed, or arrested during the war. Over the past 18 months, that site has tallied more than 23,000 killings. While the numbers tracked by Women Under Siege are much lower—over 100 cases—they shed light on another kind of toll war takes on civilians.

By compiling victim reports, the map offers a view of how conflict and sexual violence appear to go hand-in-hand in Syria. For months, Women Under Siege has been working with activists, medical personnel, non-governmental staff, and the victims themselves to gather this information. Data on this type of violence is notoriously difficult to collect because many victims are killed and survivors often flee the area or simply go silent—out of fear and shame.

But crowd-sourced information gives people cover in reporting the crimes that they might not have dared to report to local authorities. The nature of the technology also helps. “The brilliance of this approach is that you can use a cellphone to text, tweet, or email in a report,” says Dr. Koenen. Even when power is out, as often happens after battles, people can use their cell phones to report cases.

The stories themselves are grim. Survivors recount assaults that they experienced or witnessed. No one is exempt, as women, men, and sometimes children are caught in the violence. The perpetrators are often identified as government forces, although there are some reports of abuse by opposition soldiers. While it is extremely difficult to verify each story, Women Under Siege works with groups like Human Rights Watch and reputable journalists to verify facts.

Getting the World’s Attention

Women Under Siege was founded by Gloria Steinem’s Women’s Media Center to document and call attention to the ways that rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used by opposing parties during war. Thus far, CNN, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have written about the Syrian crowd-sourced map.

When asked about the chances for prosecution of the rapists, Dr. Koenen notes that successful prosecution of war crimes is challenging and even more so with regard to sexualized violence, which carries such shame and stigma for the victims. “The closest example would be some cases related to Bosnia where rape was one of the war crimes,” she recalls.

And what about the victims? There is debate on how to best help the women, children, and men who survive this kind of trauma. The stigma of such a crime often leads victims to remain silent and refrain from seeking help. Moreover, in a warzone, medical or mental health support may be simply unavailable.

Koenen notes that Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, and researchers including fellow Mailman School faculty Richard Neugebauer and Leslie Roberts are looking at post-conflict interventions, trying to evaluate how to best treat people and to understand the cultural differences that impact such treatment. In the meantime, the map continues to tally new reports.