Syria has been wracked for nearly two years by a bloody civil war. A new report (pdf) from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) says that the main reason women and girls are fleeing the country is sexual violence. Rape has become a “significant and disturbing” feature of the crisis, according to interviews with 240 Syrian women and girls who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan.
The details of the IRC report are chilling. Those interviewed said they had been attacked in public and in their homes, sometimes in front of their families and by several men. Their attackers have mostly been armed men and, says the IRC, rape has been used as a “strategy in war” — the horrific sexual violence that has come to be associated with the Balkan wars and conflicts in Africa is going on in Syria. The report does not specify whether government forces under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or rebel soldiers are behind most of the alleged assaults.
After fleeing Syria, conditions are not necessarily better for women and girls. One young girl, Aisha (not her real name) who is living with 22 other Syrian families in an abandoned school in Lebanon, told the IRC of being unable to go out unless accompanied by others and of being verbally harassed.
Syrian survivors of rape are often reluctant to alert authorities about what has happened to them due to “the stigma and social norms around the ‘dishonor’ that rape brings to women and girls and their families,” says the IRC. They also fear retribution from their assailants and from their own families: Because of the shame rape is thought to bring upon a family, survivors fear being killed by relatives. Even more,
The fear of rape is so significant that many families are marrying off their daughters to “protect” them from rape. others revert to early marriage if their daughters have been sexually assaulted “to safeguard their honor.” In one extreme case, the IRC was told of a father who shot his daughter when an armed group approached to prevent the “disgrace” of her being raped.
The IRC report also says that many refugees have experienced kidnapping, torture and murder and that doctors have reported a “systematic campaign to restrict access to healthcare through strategic bombing” that has led to hospitals closing.
Over 60,000 are reported to have been killed in the conflict in Syria which began in March of 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that unseated the longtime dictators of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. More than 2.5 million (out of Syria’s total population of 22.5 million) have been displaced and 612,000 registered as refugees with the United Nations so far. The U.N. World Food Program has already announced that it cannot deliver food to up to one million Syrians because violence — scores were killed on Tuesday after a bomb struck a university in Aleppo just as exams were starting– has engulfed the country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced that the U.K. is sending specialists to address rape and sexual violence in Syria, to meet with local health professionals and gather medical and forensic evidence. It is a start but, given the ongoing violent conflict in Syria and the trauma of those still in the country and those who have fled, it will be a long-term effort to help Aisha and so many other women and girls feel safe again.
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