Syrian women are increasingly targeted with violence and sexual assault by armed groups in the civil war between rebel groups and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to a new report.
The Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network, a network of more than 80 human rights organizations in more than 30 countries in Europe and the Mediterranean, released a report on Monday (PDF) detailing the violence experienced by Syrian women in 2012 and 2013, based on firsthand testimonies or accounts from their families or aid workers.
An estimated 6,000 Syrian women have been raped in 2013, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), of which the report’s co-author, Sema Nasar, is a member. Rape and sexual violence continue to be underreported due to the stigma associated with it in Syrian society, so the cases that are recorded tend to be from women who have sought medical or psychological care as a result, the authors wrote, as “women and girls stay in constant fear of sexual violence and arrests which prolongs their agony and pain.”
What’s more, due to the "widespread perception that arrested females are raped and harassed in prison," those who have been arrested or kidnapped are often presumed to have have been raped, according to the report. Their families are also often reluctant to report these incidences, creating a “climate of terror” for women.
In particular, rape and sexual assault of women have been "repeatedly committed" by government forces as tools to crack down on the opposition, the authors write.
Rapes and sexual harassment are also commonly reported at government checkpoints and within government detention facilities. One woman interviewed for the report said women had become accustomed to wearing several layers of clothes for fear of rape, and while she was detained by the government, a security officer threatened to rape all of the women in the jail.
The security officer also said he had allowed his fellow officers to gang-rape a woman and send a videotape of the incident to her uncle, a prominent cleric and a member of the Syrian opposition.
A woman interviewed for the report said guards beat and whipped her until she collapsed and they poured a bottle of water on her head to revive her, a cycle they repeated for 12 hours.
Arrests and illegal detention of women are “constantly increasing,” with more than 5,400 Syrian women, including 1,200 university students, arrested by the government between March 2011 and April 2013.
Women have reported being held without charge for months at a time without family visitation rights or appearance in front of a judge, a violation of a Syrian law stating that no one can be detained for longer than 60 days without charge or a court hearing, according to the report.
And finally, the authors wrote, the practice of kidnapping Syrian women or using them as human shields had "tremendously escalated," often during prisoner exchanges or to force male relatives to surrender to government forces. The SNHR documented 125 women and two children who experienced these tactics between December 2012 and May 2013.
The Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network released the report in connection with Monday’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day marked by the United Nations to recognize that violence against women is a “global pandemic,” with up to 70 percent of women experiencing it in their lifetimes.