Since 2012, the UN has declared that rape has been used as a weapon in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, with the number of victims probably in the tens of thousands. This is a war that has resulted in the rape and sexual assault of women in Assad regime prisons and the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and children by ISIS militants. Yet, both forces have seldom been punished for these crimes against humanity.
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) found that the majority of attacks have occurred during government-backed attacks on rebel positions, and that rape employed as a state tactic for suppressing anti-government opposition. For example, in 2011, during their crackdown on protesters in Jisr Al-Shugour, Assad forces tactically raided homes where women were sleeping. Likewise, in Daraa the majority of children were abducted and sexually abused by pro-government forces in 2012. It is unsurprising, then, that in 2013 Save the Children asserted in a report on the plight of children in the Syrian Civil War that ‘there is proof that girls and boys scarcely over the age of 12 have experienced sexual violence, including both torture to their genitals and rape’.
Similarly, in Assad regime prisons, prison guards have used sexual assault and torture as a means of punishment. For example, one woman named Zahira (pseudonym) was arrested and held prisoner where she was raped in ‘every body cavity’. Upon release, she had to undergo corrective surgeries for fecal-urinary incontinence caused by her multiple rapes. These are just a few examples of the persistent use of sexual violence that has been systematically embedded in the Assad regime for the last 6 years.
Infamous among the horrors committed by ISIS militants as a part of their forced conversion campaign across Syria and Iraq was the mass genocide and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi minority, a Kurdish speaking ethno-religious community who follow a syncretic religion. In December 2014, ISIS militants even released a pamphlet with over 27 Q&As, which allows the selling and buying of captives as they are ‘merely property’ and,grotesquely, permits sexual intercourse ‘with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty (if she is fit for intercourse)’.
However, some brave Yazidi refugees have revealed their stories in the hope of raising awareness. Ekhlas, 17 years old, spoke of her 6 month captivity under ISIS: ‘everyday for six months he raped me. I tried to kill myself… How am I telling you this without crying? I tell you I ran out of tears’. Now, she aspires to be a human rights lawyer and remains a refugee under psychiatric rehabilitation in Germany.
With every war and major conflict, as an international community we say ‘never again’ to mass rape, Yet, in Syria, as countless women are again finding the war waged on their bodies–we are again standing by and wringing our hands.
International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict
In 2014, China and Russia (the latter an ally of Assad) shamefully vetoed in the UN Security Council forwarding Syrian war crimes to the International Criminal Court, preventing a chance for justice. The implementation of UN Resolution 1820, which concerns the judgment of sexual violence as a war crime, is both slow and ineffective – the first related conviction only occurred last year.
Some appear to have accepted the dehumanisation of Syrian civilians due to the refugee crisis. This isn’t a call for open borders. Rather, we must acknowledge that Syrians are humans like us all, and urgently demand prosecution of the perpetrators of these war crimes. We can no longer stand idly by as these women find war waged on their body and their livelihood raped.