Women Under Siege are finding new ways to combat sexual assault in a civil war that is not at all civil.
The sheer chaos of war creates the perfect enviornment for cases of rape to proliferate. As such, standing against sexual violence in conflict is not an easy thing to do, but nonprofit organisation The Women's Media Center seem to be doing a pretty good job. With their latest programme, titled Women Under Siege, they're aiming to document every case of sexual assault they come across during the Syrian civil war. They're harnessing the power of the web to do so, plotting every incident of rape they find on a crowd-sourced map.
I spoke to the Director of WMC's Women Under Siege, Lauren Wolfe, to find out a little more about it.
VICE: First and foremost, why are women being targeted like this?
Lauren Wolfe: In Syria, we’re seeing certain patterns that suggest rape is being used to demoralise the population. Based on our reporting, allegedly over 75 percent of the attacks are being perpetrated by government or government-aligned forces. When it comes to attacks on men, which make up 20 percent of our reports, the figure jumps to 95 percent – and that’s because men are reportedly being tortured and raped in detention for the most part.
Often, in conflicts, women are the symbolic envelopes used to send points across, telling the other side: “We can dominate you and own your women.” In a place like Syria, where there’s so much pride and emphasis on purity – specifically the purity of women – violating a woman not only shames her, but her entire family. In this case, it could potentially shame an entire rebel force.
What are your aims?
The goals are three-fold: Firstly, we want to put the stories of sexualised violence in Syria on the map, drawing attention to them.
Secondly, we want to highlight where these abuses are taking place, pinpointing where victims need help, so that they can be offered survivor and psychosocial services once the fighting dies down.
The third aim is a long-term one – we want to build up a documentation base that could potentially be used as evidence if there’s going to be war crimes trials.
How does the map actually work?
There are three ways people can submit reports. They can go to the website, using the submission form; they can email us reports or go on Twitter, using the hash tag #RapeinSyria. We don’t receive as many reports through our crowd-sourcing as we do through other means. And unfortunately, due to the nature of Twitter, the reports we’ve received via tweeting have not contained as much information.
We’re receiving more and more crowd-sourced reports, but most of the stories we come across are from our own research and reporting; as well as news articles from the BBC or Al Jazeera. We also pull out reports from human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and International Rescue Committee, as well as bodies like the UN, journalists and doctors.
How do you ensure that the data you collect is accurate?
We mark all stories we get – whether from reputable places like Human Rights Watch or from a sources in the ex-pat community – as “unverified”, since we haven’t personally verified them. We may change that in the future. Personally, I’m willing to accept that some of the organisations we source are trustworthy. For now, we allow the public to take the sources and information provided at face value. We are very transparent with our sourcing, making clear where all our information comes from.
Why is it so important to collect the data now and report it live, as opposed to waiting until the conflict is over?
Twenty percent of the women in our reports are being found dead or witnessed killed, so we know we’re losing evidence every day. In the past, people have tried to measure rape during conflicts after the fact, and that has always been very messy and complicated. For instance, in Rwanda we know somewhere between 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped in 100 days. That’s a difference of a quarter of a million people – a messy number. In Bosnia, the estimates are that 50 – 60,000 women were raped. Physicians For Human Rights, who we also work with on this project, arrived at that estimate by measuring the figures of women who’d had unexpected pregnancies; a very complex way to measure rape.
There’s simply been no modern conflict in which we’ve had an easy time trying to calculate the number of sexual assaults. There is a general feeling, though, that the numbers we have arrived at in the past are usually underreported, mainly due to the shame and stigma attached to rape.
You’ve partnered with activists in Syria and bordering regions. How do these partnerships work?
It’s been hard, and I can’t reveal too much about our sources, but we work with journalists and human rights workers who have experience in the region. As a result, we’ve been able to do some extensive networking, giving us a fairly long list of links and contacts in Syria.
It isn’t easy working with sources that are based on the ground, as they sometimes go silent. I worry about whether or not they’ve been arrested or even worse. I can only imagine what they go through. Unfortunately, nothing is without risk in these kinds of situations.
Can you tell us about some of the more horrific stories listed on the map?
We’ve come across so many disturbing stories. We’ve heard about rats and mice being used on teenage girls, with attackers inserting them in their vaginas. We’ve heard about victims being immobilised with injections before being raped, and we’ve come across lots of stories about families being raped in front of each other. We’ve also heard of teenage girls being held in apartments, tortured and raped for weeks on end.
There was one particular story that stood out, though. A woman reported to us that she had witnessed her three daughters being raped and then killed in front of her.
What usually happens to the victims after being raped?
In Syria we’re hearing reports of honour killings – at the very least, threats of honour killings. The International Rescue Committee has done some work on that. We have one report on our map from a Finnish journalist who had been in the refugee camps. The journalist interviewed a family who said that their next door neighbour’s daughter had been kidnapped and raped. Apparently, when she came home she killed herself. We’ve also had reports of men divorcing their wives because they’ve been raped.
Are any Syrian officials doing anything about all this?
We don’t know of any. It’s interesting because, legally speaking, the Syrian government has a responsibility to investigate these crimes, as they’ve been made aware of the reports of human rights violations. The problem is that there’s no one who will really hold them responsible, because, at this point, they are not a party to the International Criminal Court. We know the Syrian government is aware of what’s going on. Whether anything will be done about it remains to be seen.
Do we know anything about how Syrians are defending or protecting themselves against rape?
It’s interesting because I received an email a while back from a woman who said she was in Syria. She emailed me, asking what she and her neighbours could do to protect themselves from being raped. They feared they would be attacked. It was a really horrifying email to receive. I had no idea if it was real or if it was some kind of bait – you have to be careful in these situations. I did a lot of checking around with different groups, and we came to the conclusion that the email was potentially authentic. This woman really did just want some information on how to protect herself. It was all so surreal and heart-breaking.
The International Rescue Committee recently put up a report citing rape as a major reason why refugees are fleeing Syria. In the end, what can helpless people do but flee?
Visit womenundersiegeproject.org to find out more.
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