Report: Women increasingly on the front lines of Syrian war

Women have been detained, tortured and abused for taking on new roles during the three-year conflict

View Full Gallery

Syrian women have borne the burden of the country’s brutal three-year conflict, with many having taken on new roles as political activists, caregivers, humanitarians and family breadwinners — often at great personal risk, a report said Thursday.

Researchers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke to a number of women caught up in the civil war, with many reporting shocking details of torture, sexual abuse in prison and the impact of losing family members and their homes as a result of the fighting.

“Women have not been spared any aspect of the brutality of the Syrian conflict, but they are not merely passive victims,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at HRW. “Women are taking on increasing responsibilities — whether by choice or due to circumstance — and they should not have to pay with intimidation, arrest, abuse or even torture.”

The report, titled “We are still here: Women on the front lines of Syria’s conflict,” profiles 17 women who fled violence in Syria and are now living in Turkey. Its release comes one day before a United Nations review of the situation for Syrian women in Geneva, and HRW hopes to draw attention to the many challenges faced. Understanding their needs is critical to developing appropriate responses for women in Syria and refugee camps.

The United Nations said in June that almost half of Syria’s population needs humanitarian aid. The conflict that began as a peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has spiraled into a ruthless civil war that has left no part of the country unscathed. Over 150,000 have been killed and 9 million displaced in the war that has also created a massive refugee crisis.

International aid for medical, psychosocial and economic needs is urgently needed for women displaced within the country or living as refugees in neighboring nations, HRW said in the report.

Women, as well as men, have been targeted for civil activism and participating in protests, the report said. Kinda, a 21-year-old Syrian Druze woman from Sweida, was one of the four ‘brides of peace’ that marched in November 2012 wearing white wedding dresses through Damascus calling for an end to military action. Half an hour later, they were arrested by government forces and detained.

“When we entered [the captain] started to shout the worst words I have ever heard: ‘Now I have four whores to entertain myself tonight,’” Kinda told HRW.

Before she was taken away to be beaten with four entwined electric cables, the captain threatened to arrest and torture her farther, and told the guards, “I want to hear their screams from my office.”

Particularly vulnerable

Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture have characterized Syria’s conflict since it began in March 2011. HRW has documented systematic torture in 27 government-run detention facilities as well as others run by anti-government groups. Syrian monitoring group Violations Documentation Center said it has information relating to over 50,000 detentions including that of almost 1,500 women. Over 40,000 of those documented are still awaiting release.

Nayla, 52, was a teacher in Daraa when the uprising began. In March 2012, she and a male friend agreed to transport a Syrian military defector about 50 miles to Damascus. The car was stopped at a checkpoint, where government soldiers discovered the defector and took them to a detention facility in Mezzeh, Damascus.

“We were underground and we didn’t know if it was day or night. They used the same plastic boat to give us food as they used in the toilet,” Nayla told HRW. She said she saw a man crawling on the floor, his feet so blue and swollen from beatings that he couldn’t walk.

“You can’t imagine — day and night, the screaming, the crying, the beating,” she said, adding a description of a man who was hanging outside of the women’s cell. “His nails had been pulled out. He was talking and talking and talking. They would stamp on his bare feet without toenails.”

The report recommends that the U.N. Security Council and other concerned governments impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and publicly condemn torture in detention by all armed groups operating there.

Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse while being held, and some have reported sexual assault and rape. Layla, 21, said she was detained by government forces in November 2012 for providing temporary housing and other necessities to displaced families from the besieged city of Homs.

She was taken to a military intelligence branch in Damascus, where she was hung in a stress position from the ceiling and molested by government forces – who also forced her to perform sexual acts. Layla has not been able to access psychological help since escaping the country.

“I don’t have any feelings at all – no happiness, no sadness, no nothing,” Layla told HRW.

Click here for more coverage of Syria's war

Thirty-year-old Maisa, an intensive care nurse from Damascus, had been treating the wounded in government-controlled areas — which the regime did not permit. Later, she began hosting a pro-opposition weekly program on TV – with her face covered – but the government tortured a fellow activist to get her identity and eventually arrested her, according to the report.

“They slapped me on the face. They pulled me from my hair. They hit me on my feet, on my back, all over,” she said, adding that police often sexually harassed and tortured other female detainees.

“I used to hear a woman screaming,” she said. Maisa saw the woman – who was handcuffed, naked, and alone in a cell. The guards made the woman beat another female detainee in Maisa’s cell until she was bruised all over. Some women would trade sex for food or phone calls, Maisa added.

After her release in September 2013, Maisa learned that her sister Samar was arrested by armed men in Aleppo for civil activism and not wearing a hijab. The family has no idea where Samar is, Maisa said.

Extremist groups have placed discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in Aleppo, al-Hassakah, Idlib, and Raqqa governates, the report said. They have imposed strict dress codes and limitations on women’s engagement in public life. The groups also control women’s ability to move freely, as well as their access to education and employment.

With over 98,000 civilian deaths reported in the war as of June, including 10,700 women and thousands of children, many Syrian women have lost husbands, brother and fathers – whether they were detained, killed, or left home to fight. As men’s presence and ability to fulfill traditional roles decreases, more women have emerged as head of the household, the report said.

Amal, 44, was walking home in July 2013 with her 10-year-old son one day when government forces bombed her Aleppo neighborhood.

“When we heard the barrel bomb I said to my husband, ‘God help those who have been bombed.’ Then I found out it was my house and I lost my children,” Amal told HRW. Her four other children died in the attack.

She said that soon after, her husband had a heart attack and stroke – leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to speak or work, making her the sole-breadwinner for the family. They now live in a public park in Turkey, and rely on a restaurant that provides free meals to Syrian refugees.

Civil activism

Women and children are often caught in the center of the fighting, the report said. Forty-year-old Salwa said her home was located between a Free Syrian Army position and government troops which were constantly shelling each other.

In October 2013, a tank shell struck their house and a cooking gas canister caught fire – severely burning Salwa and her daughter. Her brother took her to the hospital, and when they returned the house was destroyed, she told HRW.

A sniper shot 45-year-old Aisha while she was shopping at an Aleppo market in February 2013, according to the report.

“I was in the middle of the street trying to buy vegetables … the bullet entered me on the back of the neck,” she told researchers. X-rays by HRW showed the bullet lodged at the top of her spine. She can’t use her left hand or her legs and is mostly confined to a bed in Turkey, where the family fled in March 2013.

Tiba, a 37-year-old schoolteacher, said that students stopped coming to class after the situation in Aleppo deteriorated due to heavy fighting and airstrikes by government forces. She and her family moved homes multiple times in an attempt to avoid being hit, but after the barrel bombs began, Tiba said they gave up trying.

“If you are going to die anyway, it is better to die in your home,” Tiba said. When she left for Turkey with her family, her husband lost his good job in Syria and became unemployed — which she said was hard for him mentally and emotionally.

Despite all of the loss and risks they face, Syrian men and women continue to engage in civil activism to promote peace and democracy. Maha, a 28-year-old first grade teacher from Aleppo, was part of a local activist group and newly married to husband Mustafa when they went to a demonstration in November 2012.

“I felt something falling above me and I started to run. I turned back and saw dust. I looked for [my husband] … I couldn’t find him. I started looking through the bodies,” Maha told HRW. She found one of her friends – who was bleeding profusely – but did not find her husband.

Finally someone told her that he was in the hospital, and Maha said, “I saw a child without legs. I saw every kind of injury. But my only worry was: Where is Mustafa?”

Mustafa died a few hours later in surgery, along with 13 others from the protest — leaving Maha shocked and hopeless, she said. She left a few months later for Turkey, but continued activism as a human rights blogger.

“On the news you only see blood and destruction,” Maha said, “You don’t see that behind it, there are civilian groups doing things peacefully.”

Women’s meaningful inclusion at all levels in peace negotiations and state-building initiatives must be a priority, the report said, as they have stepped up into important roles during the conflict.

HRW called on the international community to hold the Syrian government and armed groups responsible for abuses against women and girls. They said donor governments should help to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the 2.8 million refugees — half of which are women and girls — and the 6.5 million internally displaced persons. Syrian women also need international support for their medical and psychological needs – especially those who have been detained and abused.

“The women of Syria have faced extraordinary loss,” Gerntholtz said. “Yet they persist as activists, caregivers, and humanitarians.” 


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter