- The use of rape in Syria has become a widespread tactic used by multiple actors as a tool to punish women and discourage dissent. The United Nations treated 38,000 victims in 2013.
- In refugee camps, women face an increasing risk of sexual and domestic violence, as well as sexual exploitation in exchange for essential goods and services.
- Rape and other forms of violence against women not only bring devastating physical and psychological harm to individuals, but can destroy important family and social units, with repercussions for years to come.
The Syrian government was reportedly responsible for 62 percent of rapes between 2011 and 2015, while the Islamic State “owns” thousands of Yazidi women and gifts Syrian girls as brides to its militants. The U.N. first declared that rape was being used as a weapon of war in Syria in 2012, and has since condemned sexual violence multiple times, blaming both the Syrian government and Islamic State forces.
Fear of rape is often cited by female refugees as a primary reason for their flight from Syria, yet sexual violence and sex trafficking remain issues within refugee camps and host countries. In one camp, 69 percent of women were reported to live in dwellings without adequate locks and 46 percent felt unsafe living within the camp. Both sexual assault and domestic violence are reportedly on the rise, but social stigmas related to sexual assault prevent many women from reporting it.
A significant amount of legislation in Syria either directly facilitates sexual violence against women or downplays its criminal nature: Marital rape is not recognized in Syrian law, and victims of rape are often pressured into marrying their rapist to shield themselves from dishonor. Honor killings were only made illegal in 2009, with a minimum prison sentence of just two years and a maximum of seven.
The Syrian government is a major perpetrator of sexual violence against both men and women, reportedly responsible for 62 percent of rapes between 2011 and 2015; the pro-Baathist armed militias, or shabiha, were said to be responsible for another 23 percent. In interviews, multiple victims recounted that their attackers used links to opposition parties or protests as justification for the assaults.
Other women report being abducted, detained, and raped in front of male relatives as blackmail. As of 2015, 34 percent of reported rapes occurred while victims were in detention, while 23 percent took place during home raids and 15 percent during abductions. Government forces have reportedly abducted women from checkpoints, raped them, and returned them to their families, seeking to identify them as victims of rape and expose them to the social stigma associated with it. Additionally, women report being arbitrarily arrested and detained for use in negotiations and prisoner exchanges.
While exact figures are unavailable, honor killings are reportedly increasing in frequency in Syria, and have been reported in refugee communities as well. In 2009, prior to the outbreak of the current conflict, the Syrian Women Observatory estimated that about 200 such killings took place in the country each year. To protect their daughters, many families are arranging for them to marry earlier; child marriage among refugees increased by 20 percent between 2011 and 2014, and though there is limited data on the issue within Syria, girls there are likely facing similar situations.
The Islamic State uses an organized system of sexual slavery and forced marriage to attract fighters and to reward their militants. Minority women are bought and sold to fighters in “slave bazaars,” and rape is so frequent that most are put on consistent birth control regimens. Syrian girls are also gifted as bridges to Islamic State members, and as our partners at News Deeply report, these marriages are often driven by fear and accompanied by sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Interviews with women who have escaped indicate that rape and torture are also used against Sunni Arab women deemed apostates because of their actions or those of their family members.
The threat of rape and other forms of sexual violence are cited by refugee women and girls as a primary factor in their decision to flee Syria, but the same issues remain pervasive within the camps. In many camps, sleeping areas are not gender-segregated, and women report fears of being groped or assaulted in their sleep. Aid workers say that refugee women are loath to admit that they have been assaulted, but humanitarian organization Caritas Lebanon reports that more than half of the women who seek its services have been raped. Domestic violence is also on the rise, which aid workers attribute in part to the frustration associated with the cramped quarters and high levels of unemployment within the camps.
Women who are widowed, divorced, or otherwise separated from their husbands also reported sexual harassment from employers, landlords, and others. Nearly 35 percent of Syrian refugees live in female-headed households, and on average these families have incomes that are 15–-32 percent lower than male-headed households, leaving women vulnerable to sexual exploitation in exchange for necessities. Women are sometimes lured into forced prostitution under the guise of employment.
Policy Implications and Challenges
Syria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003, and the U.N. Security Council has condemned the gender-based violence that accompanies war through numerous resolutions and calls to action, yet sexual violence continues to plague Syria. Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security was heralded as a landmark resolution, but has failed to address the structural inequalities that put women at greater risk during conflict, and fundamentally lacks necessary enforcement mechanisms. Additionally, as discussed by our partners at News Deeply, agreements such as the 2015 refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey have negatively impacted refugee communities in general, but women and girls in particular, as refugees have been stranded in ill-equipped camps that lack adequate privacy and protection.
Rape and other forms of violence against women can be devastating for individuals and pervasively undermine peace and development, tearing apart essential familial and societal structures and reinforcing harmful perceptions of women as commodities. While the international community has recognized the extent of Syria’s sexual violence crisis—the 2016 U.S. Trafficking in Persons report placed Syria into Tier 3, which indicates that a government “does not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”—it has failed to establish meaningful institutions to protect women and girls or provide aid to victims. Prevention of gender-based violence and provision of aid to victims must be actively pursued and protected through enforceable measures as an integral aspect of Syrian recovery and reconstruction.
Rape: A Weapon of War With Long-Term Consequences
Sexual violence continues to be used on all sides of the Syrian conflict, but in a society that forces victims to suffer in silence, documenting instances of rape is nearly impossible and the consequences for survivors are devastating.
Rahaf feared going home. Her clothes had been torn, making visible the painful red welts that would turn into eggplant-colored bruises. On her arms and legs, her family and fiance would be able to see the round burn marks where they put out cigarettes on her skin.
When the 19-year-old left her home in the Damascus suburbs earlier that day, she was on her way to school to take her final exam of senior year. That’s when a group of men Rahaf says were affiliated with pro-Syrian regime militias attacked her. Her wedding was to be in just a few days.
“A car filled with thugs working for the Syrian regime pulled over. They dragged me into their car, hit me and stubbed out their cigarette butts on my skin,” she told Syria Deeply, using a pseudonym because she feared her community’s reaction. “They took me to the Mazzeh military airport where they raped me, and they left me on the street.”
Syrian society does not offer a safe setting for these stories to become public, but rather normalizes rape and often blames the victim through a culture built on honor and shame. Survivors are often marginalized or encouraged to hide and reshape their past. This makes it all the more dangerous to speak out about abuses, and the result is twofold: sexual violence has become a devastatingly common and effective tactic of repression and fear in Syria, and documenting incidents has become extremely challenging.
“There are no accurate statistics on the number of women who have been victims of war, especially those who have been raped,” said Dr. Sabah Halaq, a researcher of women’s issues in Syria. “But I have dealt with and still deal with cases from Darya in Rif Dimashq, and Hawla, and Karm al-Zaitoun in Homs,” she added.
For many women like Rahaf, the impact of sexual assault lives on long after the crime was committed and permeates nearly every facet of a woman’s life. But between the stigma attached to victims and the taboo of discussing the crime, Syrian women who have been sexually assaulted must suffer in silence.
“Whether women were jailed and assaulted or raped for political reasons such as their activities and their involvement in the revolution, whether they were detained to denounce family members and friends, whether they were jailed for different reasons, being put in such situations means the end of ‘normal life’ ever after,” said Aya Mehanna, a psychotherapist who has worked with many Syrians in neighboring countries over the past few years.
When Rahaf’s fiance saw her, he stormed out, enraged, without telling her where he was going. “That night I heard an explosion. The next morning, I learned that my fiance had blown up the security police’s car,’ she said.
A Weapon With Widespread Consequences
For many parties fighting in Syria, rape has become an additional weapon used to achieve their military or political goals.
“For all of the women I have worked with, a before and after exists and is undeniably what shapes their new identity,” Mehanna said. “Some of them have been accepted by their family but feel there is always a stigma on them, a sense of shame in the eyes of their close ones.”
Some victims are not accepted by their families, particularly women from conservative or traditional backgrounds. Some view it as a loss of her honor, something that can follow her for the rest of her life.
After she was raped, Rahaf never finished school. She moved to Lebanon, and her fiance left for opposition-controlled Idlib. Though he refuses to break off their engagement, he also has not agreed to set a new date for their wedding.
“The trauma of the rape is present, heavy and is lived in a very lonely way. It is difficult to talk about. It is difficult to accept it, and the victimization that society used as a means to make it feel less harsh is in itself difficult to bear,” Mehanna said.
Not only does it destroy people, but it also inflames tensions between communities, according to independent journalist Marie Frostier, who collected testimonies from survivors of rape, former detainees in government prisons, doctors, lawyers and regime defectors in her report, “Rape as a Tactic of the Assad Regime.”
The most documented instances of rape during the conflict in Syria have been those committed by pro-regime forces, though they are not the only perpetrators. Like barrel bombs, chemical weapons and mass executions, rape has been used to quell the opposition. One of the most vivid examples took place in 2012, during the al-Houla massacre in Homs, when stories emerged of the Syrian army raping women as they invaded houses to arrest men.
Most occurred during offensives in opposition strongholds or during interrogations in prisons and at checkpoints, where “raping detainees was a way of terrorizing them and punishing them,” Frostier said.
In some detention centers, according to her report, guards even distributed contraceptive pills to detainees. “Contraceptive pills are not something that you expect to be necessary or available in detention,” she said. “These are elements that indicate that rapes from pro-regime forces have been systematic in Syria.”
All the survivors Frostier talked to were either activists, relatives of activists, opposition fighters or residents of opposition areas. As a result, according to Frostier, women who had links with the opposition – or who were suspected to be linked to them – were intended targets.
Pressure to abuse detainees was one of the reasons Ahmed defected from the army in 2012. “When I decided to leave the Syrian army, I had one thought in mind: I will never be that person, that evil officer who will beat and rape any human, guilty or not,” he told Syria Deeply.
But many other regime officers did not share the same view, particularly when they were losing.
“The issue is never a mere feminine submission to male chauvinism; the more men are oppressed, the more they practice oppression on women,” Dr. Ahmad al-Shikhani wrote in “Survived Women in the Syrian Society,” a research booklet based on testimonies of women who were raped and abused in the Syrian regime’s prisons.
Just before pro-regime forces left the northwestern city of Idlib in February 2013, ceding control to the opposition, the Syrian army arrested 31-year-old Iman, because of accusations that her brothers joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). She had just graduated from the institute of computer science in Idlib when she was detained for nearly five months, moved between the Political Security branch in Idlib, the military police and a civil women’s prison, she told Syria Deeply.
“It was hell by all means. I was left lying on the floor in a hallway, right next to the bathroom,” she added. “I can still remember the smell, and the sounds of tortured prisoners … it was in that hallway that I was raped several times.”
Iman suffered from a physical disability, and had endured many surgeries. Using this, she tried to talk her way out of prison many times. “I would sometimes scream and beg them to stop beating me on my legs, but they did that on purpose.”
Torture and abuse is rampant in regime-run prisons for detainees of both genders. But for women who are raped while detained, the nightmare does not end when they are released.
“While male detainees are hailed as heroes when released, female detainees are forced to suffer yet another dilemma,” Shikhani said.
Iman is one of the few who continued activism work after her release from jail. She found a job at a local NGO supporting social issues, specifically women in times of war and distress.
But testimonies in Frostier’s report show that many survivors left the country. This has been part of a successful strategy of the regime: scores of activists who were detained left Syria after their release. Many women who fled Syria cited fear of rape as their primary reason. It emptied the country of the people active in the early stage of the revolution.
Some have also tried to end their lives. Others decide to move on either by using a new identity, changing countries and engaging in human rights activism or in domains unrelated to politics.
Sexual Violence on All Sides of the Front
Documenting cases of rape in opposition-controlled territory is nearly impossible, though there have been unverified reports over the last six years. In a June 2013 OHCHR report, interviewees described women being “segregated during house searches in Aleppo city, in joint operations by anti-government armed groups, with an implication of possible sexual violence.” Another interviewee in the same report said she had been sexually assaulted in Yarmouk in April 2013.
Noura Jizawi, a former detainee and human rights activist working on the Start point project, publisher of the “Alma” report, explains how no one was able to verify and confirm rapes on the opposition’s side: “It was almost impossible to track down. We heard stories about some violations practiced by Al-Islam army and a few others, but nothing is verified.”
Asaad Hanna, a former FSA political officer, said it is difficult to document or identify rapes in opposition or al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) areas, partially because such acts would contribute to them losing respect and support from the local population.
“HTS members are occupying their own areas where they were either born or raised. It’s their own society and entourage, they are very familiar with it and with the people’s values. Basically, they are controlling areas in which their families and friends live,” Hanna said.
Hanna said that since both ISIS and the Syrian regime announced control of territory and gained popular support, they practiced their own strategies of war, including rape. “HTS was still gathering support and did not announce its ’empire’ yet. This is an important difference between HTS and ISIS. HTS is interested in civilians’ support, and committing rape will not serve what they are trying to advertise.”
However, according to Samira, a media activist residing in northern Syria, the values shared by many groups in control of opposition areas blur the line of what constitutes sexual violence. Prostitution, for example, exists in northern Syria, despite it defying “the norms and values of these area.” She added that this cannot be compared to rape, as it is considered consensual.
Samira said she has met several women in prison in Idlib accused of prostitution.
The Cost of Silence
The shame and stigma associated with sexual violence have left very little room for victims to seek support.
“Some women saw a doctor, but long-term treatment is inaccessible most of the time. Psychosocial support is very rare. What’s more, most women don’t dare ask for treatment, so they keep their pain quiet,” Frostier said.
When asked about organizations tackling this issue, Mehanna elaborated: “Local NGOs … do not have the capacity to work long term with these women who need a long-term follow-up or therapies.”
However, according to Mehanna, many initiatives are offered but are related to protection and awareness of sexual abuse. “Many women feel that such initiatives are impersonal and do not really tackle their needs.”
The problem with current options for support is that they feed into the the existing stigmas, according to former detainee Jizawi. “Some people think that the right way to support a woman who was raped in detention is by offering her money; others think that finding her a husband will protect her honor,” she said.
Her organization provides psychosocial support, capacity building and tracks both displacement and demographic changes. In 2015, it supported 60 victims.
“We still have a very long way to go,” she said. “The process should be continuous, from medial to psychosocial support to offering a welcoming environment to these women.”
While human rights organizations have collected numbers and figures of rape practiced by the Syrian regime, decision-makers have focused on ISIS crimes. Countering terrorism “tops the agenda nowadays,” according to Frostier.
“Remember, sexual violence is an effective tool in wars because it manages to destroy people while not costing anything,” said Frostier. “Rape is also a silent weapon. Few survivors speak out about it. Eventually, most of the times, impunity has prevailed for perpetrators. That’s why accountability is essential to fight the use of rape as a weapon in conflicts.”
However, the kidnapping and rape of the Yazidis was widely publicized, and many Yazidi survivors of sexual violence told their stories publicly afterward, in order to cast ISIS in the worst possible light. This was a major difference from the plight of former Syrian female detainees.
As the regime appears likely to stay in place for now, it would complicate negotiations to point at the crimes that it has committed. Frostier agrees.
To speak and share stories will still be a challenge for survivors, but it’s possible if they see a tangible benefit afterward. Promising them justice in times of war is neither fair nor enough, but offering them the needed support and protection, from local to larger scales, could encourage more to speak out, ensuring more testimonies to proceed with justice mechanisms that are to address sexual crimes committed by all sides.
Marie Frostier is a strong believer that the stigma attached to sexual crimes in Syria deters women from speaking. “A change of mentality would be necessary so that women could speak,” she said. And it is never too late to speak.
In Syria’s War Economy, Women Have Become a Form of Currency
The sale and trade of women in Syria is not a wanton and senseless consequence of war. It is a consequence of a war economy in which nearly all warring parties and even civilians use women to secure profit, weapons, access or leverage in negotiations.
Syria is flush with war profiteers taking advantage of the most devastating aspects of the conflict, from the black-market trade of burial plots to the monopoly on dairy in besieged areas. The crumbling economy has made survival in Syria dependent on a – usually extortionate – system of transactions and trades. Perhaps the most brutal consequence of this has been the use of women as a form of currency.
Women are kidnapped for ransom, sold into marriage and, in some cases, traded for weapons and goods and used as negotiation leverage. Syria is not the first conflict in which women have been used as tools to further political, military or financial goals by the warring factions. But in Syria women have become an instrumental part of a war economy that is largely built on violence against them, experts say.
“Using women [as currency] is common when someone is in an urgent need of something but they can’t possibly afford it,” Eman Obeid, a gender-based violence specialist for the Danish Refugee Council, told Syria Deeply.
Even the civilian echelons of Syrian society have used women as a form of currency, where they can be exchanged for protection, permission to cross a border or front line or even the cost of rent.
“Sometimes this is being used to extract power from someone stronger … and sometimes it’s the other way around, someone with more power demands a woman when money is not available,” Obeid said.
Kidnap for Ransom
The kidnapping and trade of women for ransom payments has been a source of significant income for warring parties in Syria. The so-called Islamic State, for example, has collected an estimated $40 million in ransom payments from the families of abducted women and girls in Iraq and Syria.
One of the most notorious, albeit lucrative kidnappings has been that of the hundreds of Assyrian Christians – many of whom were women – taken from Hassakeh province in February 2015. ISIS demanded an $18 million ransom payment, but eventually settled for less, according to the Associated Press.
“When we talk about the political economy of terrorism, and the suppression of terrorist financing, we talk about the oil trade or antiquities market. But we don’t talk about sexual violence,” Letitia Anderson, the advocacy and women’s rights specialist with U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, told Syria Deeply.
“The amount of revenue generated from trafficking women, extorting their families, forcing ransoms, forcibly marrying women and girls is not negligible,” she said.
Pro-government militias have also been accused of kidnapping women and girls for ransom. The practice was particularly prominent and on the rise in Damascus in 2016, according to reports published on the activist-run Syria Untold and The Syrian Observer media outlets. Pro-government militias largely targeted women from wealthy families or the daughters of prominent figures “because their parents are able and willing to pay large sums of money to free their daughters quickly due to fear of rape and scandal,” Rami Zineddin, a resident of Damascus, told Syria Untold last summer,adding that the average amount to free a woman who was kidnapped was roughly 5 million Syrian pounds ($9,709).
The Syrian government denounced these accusations, claiming victims were fabricating their own kidnappings to extort their families for money.
The Cost to Cross
Putting a price tag on women has also significantly decreased their freedom of movement within the country to cross Syria’s borders – with levels of risk that vary from town to town.
Obeid had to make several different transformations to her appearance during the journey from her hometown in Deir Ezzor to Turkey. She first arrived in a “cool” district, where she was able to blend in easily, but she had to move on to more traditional districts, where she wore a veil and a black dress. When she got closer to the Euphrates River, she said she dressed like a farmer, keeping her black dress with her. She paid a “fixer” 100,000 Syrian pounds ($194) to arrange a boat to cross the Euphrates into ISIS-held territory.
“While in water, I changed the clothes and ISIS-ed up,” she said. “Crossing the ISIS checkpoint is repulsive. You have to check all the three layers – what they call “Sharia” clothing, full face cover, black socks, black shoes and black gloves. Missing any part of it means your life or your soul is in danger. “Once I was just cleaning my glasses. I had to take off one layer of the three off my face, and when I couldn’t see clearly, one ISIS man ran to me and hit me with a rifle on my shoulder shouting, ‘Cover your face, woman!’”
Obeid’s mother and sister made similar journeys, but the women decided to split up before making the journey, so that both wouldn’t be “compromised if something bad happened,” Obeid said.
ISIS requires women crossing within their territory to be accompanied by a man, but they had also banned men under the age of 65 from leaving Deir Ezzor. This left Obeid’s family with only their father as an option. He accompanied her mother, leaving her sister Yamama to make the crossing alone. ISIS arrested Yamama.
“They used my sister … and demand something to release her, arguing that she cannot leave without being accompanied by a man,” Obeid said.
Obeid now works on the cases of many Syrian women who have had endured similarly brutal experiences while traveling both within the country and across its borders, some at the hands of other civilians. She recalled to Syria Deeply the case of a father who sold his 19-year-old daughter into a marriage with a 65-year-old Turkish man in exchange for his help crossing the border.
In a separate case, one Syrian woman could not afford the fee when she decided to flee. The smugglers agreed to accept a trade instead: They would rape her in exchange for allowing her to cross the border.
In the same way that women have been exchanged for money, they have also been traded for weapons, goods and services.
The trade of Syrian women has also spilled over to neighboring countries. “Many women spoke of being approached by their landlords for sexual relations or favors in return for rent ‘payment,’” Mohammed, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, told the International Rescue Committee in a report.
Eman discussed a similar case in Turkey, where a homeowner offered a Syrian widow one year’s rent in exchange for marrying her daughter.
“It’s like the price of a year rental is a young female,” Obeid said.
A November 2016 report by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom found the Syrian government guilty of arresting women “in order to trade them with weapons of armed opposition groups,” the report said. “The last months have witnessed unprecedented arrests, apparently for this purpose only.”
In July 2015, the Syrian government arrested two women from the town of Dael in Daraa province, later releasing them in exchange for money and “20 pieces of weapons” delivered from rebels to government troops, according to the report. Similar incidents have also been recorded in the areas of Tafas and Atman, also in Daraa province, the report said.
A 2015 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) provided more examples of women being detained by the Syrian government and traded for goods. The report mentions the case of Sahar who was arrested in 2012 for nine months in Sweida along with her 13-year-old son on ambiguous charges of “dealing with terrorists.” She was released as part of an agreement between the Syrian government and an unspecified opposition faction. Under the terms of the agreement, Syrian rebels would deliver food to Syrian troops besieged in a prison in Deraa province in exchange for her release.
“The deal was (to release me) in exchange for food to be delivered to the Syrian government soldiers inside the prison,” Sahar said in her testimony.
Syrian women detained in government prisons have emerged as a key asset for the Syrian government in captive exchange deals with opposition factions. Just last week, Jaish Osoud al-Sharqiya, a Free Syrian army affiliate in southern Syria, released a Syrian pilot they had captured in mid-August in exchange for the release of a number of female detainees from government prisons.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), since March 2011 some 13,920 women and girls have been arbitrarily detained in Syria, and as of February 2017, at least 7,500 remained in detention. Of these detainees, around 6,000 are being held by pro-government forces.
“From our standpoint, the Syrian authorities see those women as an additional investment,” SNHR wrote in their 2016 report on the situation of women in Syria. “They use these women in captive exchange deals with factions from the armed oppositions. They are trying to benefit from these detainees as much as possible.”
Syrian rebel groups have also resorted to the detention of women to extract confessions from the Syrian government. According to EMHRN, since 2013 opposition groups have increasingly resorted to the detention of women to acquire bargaining power in negotiations with the Syrian government over the release of rebel fighters.
In 2016, opposition groups “used” women and girls in Hama province “in captive exchange deals with government forces,” according to SNHR.
“As a result, Syrian women are being targeted in an indiscriminate manner by most parties to the conflict who use them to gain weight in their negotiations on hostage exchanges,” EMHRN said in a report.