Sexual violence is a central weapon of war

Sexual violence is a central weapon of war
Comment: We must stop treating rape as a side effect of conflict and see it for what it is: a tool purposefully used to terrorise and subjugate, says Heather McRobie.
4 min read
20 Aug, 2015
Not enough attention is given to sexual violence in Syria's war [Getty]

Rukmini Callimachi's article for the New York Times last week documented how the Islamic State has constructed a "theology of rape".

Callicmachi detailed how the group began to institute systematic sexual slavery after the capture of Yazidis around Mount Sinjar in August 2014, and have since sought to "justify the practice to its internal audience". 

The stories of sexual slavery were horrific and laced with IS's singular fixation on spectacle, but are also as familiar and ancient as war itself.

In Syria today, there is an invisible battlefield, a different kind of front line: the bodies of women, girls and men, who are subjected to rape and sexual torture as a tactic of war. 

For all of IS's attention-grabbing spectacle of horror, rape as a weapon of war was present before the IS burned itself into our collective consciousness.

At the Women Under Siege project, journalist Lauren Wolfe has worked with epidemiologists and medics to crowd-map sexual violence as a weapon of war in Syria.

Both government forces and the armed opposition have used rape as a weapon.

IS "theology of rape" terrorises through its chilling codification of sexual slavery, and seeks to legitimise the violation of the "enemy" by citing religious texts. Assad's regime, meanwhile, makes no attempt to justify its use of wartime rape, it's just a very effective tactic of subjugation.

The work of Bosnian women seeking justice in the

aftermath of the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s - in which an estimated 50,000 women were raped - helped to establish rape as a war crime. 

Yet the conflict in Syria has seen the pattern repeat itself again: sexual violence is used, against "enemy" women, to instill terror in the population, to demarcate control over territory, and to punish and humiliate.

The social stigma surrounding rape makes it all the more potent a weapon, and means survivors, including men, fear ostracism that prevents them both telling their story and seeking medical aid.

     The social stigma surrounding rape makes it all the more potent a weapon.

And the terror does not even end when Syrians flee the war. Those escaping the country run a gauntlet in which attackers can come from all sides - at checkpoints, at borders, men seeking exploitive "marriages" to vulnerable young women, and in the vast refugee camps where dislocation, poverty and anonymity provide a climate for further sexual exploitation. 

The bridal shop on the "Champs Elysees" street in Zaatari - Jordan's vast refugee camp now home to about 80,000 Syrian refugees - didn't spring up in the camp because everybody there was suddenly falling in love.

Rather, in face of both the fear of rape and the social stigma it carries, young women are pushed to marry at an earlier age. As explored in the 2014 documentary, Queens of Syria - about Syrian female refugees living in Amman, those who have fled the conflict in Syria are not even granted the safe space to process their trauma.

Yet, rape appears only intermittently in our narratives of the conflict, such as Callimachi's heartbreaking documentation.

We still fail to join the dots, not only the scale of the problem, but also its role in creating refugees, and leaving them - again - vulnerable once they have fled. 

Why is sexual violence still treated, at best, as an occasional footnote to conflict?

The reporting of Callimachi, Wolfe and others aren't side-stories to the main events of war. These reporters are telling one of the most central stories of the Syrian conflict and how it has ripped through the lives of Syrians in the most intimate and brutalising ways.

One of the difficulties of documenting and reporting sexual violence with accuracy is the very effect such crimes have on their victims, such as shame.
Another is that it will always be easier to make grand gestures about human rights than to and fund work to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

As Nussaibah Younis pointed out in the Guardian, one year on from Angelina Jolie's wartime sexual violence summit in London, the British Foreign Office has spent less than a fifth on supporting NGOs working to combat wartime sexual violence than it spent on organising the summit itself.  

Much more needs to be done to support women's rights and human rights organisations that are committed to documenting and preventing wartime sexual violence and providing medical and psychological care for survivors. 

We owe it to Syrians to pay attention beyond the occasional story.

Heather McRobie is a journalist at openDemocracy. She has written for publications including the Guardian, New Statesman, Foreign Policy.

Her book on freedom of literary expression and hate speech in literature, Literary Freedom, was published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @heathermcrobie

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.