The soldiers broke into the house in the Syrian town of Homs and tied up the occupants--wife and husband, two daughters and a son. In front of the men, the soldiers stripped and raped the women, then burned their genitals with cigarettes, saying “You want freedom? This is your freedom.”
Systematic rape is a veiled weapon of war; it scars individuals in ways that bombs and bullets don’t. In a Syrian society, sexual assault victims are severely stigmatized: survivors often are forced into marriage, abandoned by their family or face further abuse. Some are put to death.
Sexual assault is painfully pervasive in the Syrian conflict.
The Homs family escaped to a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, and nine months after the incident Yassar Kanawiti, a psychologist reporting to Women Under Siege, began treating them. The mother had given birth, but when Kanawati asked if the baby was from the rape, the woman went blank and changed the subject. The son had not spoken since the incident; he and his father hung their heads and did not make eye contact with Kanawati. The two sisters found work in Amman, but the mother was “consumed” by the baby, Kanawati recounted.
In addition to the physical, mental and social anguish of sexual threats and assaults, sexual violence in conflict hinders progress towards creating safe communities and rebuilding stable economies.
Often, if the survivors work, they can miss days, weeks or months, resulting in lower earnings and productivity. Even small fluctuations in income affect nutritional intake for entire families living in poverty, increasing hunger and child malnutrition. Children and adults may be forced to move to escape violence, leaving behind their possessions, family and community networks, and land that may have provided food and even a little income. Once able to survive on little, families on the run suddenly find themselves with nothing.
Because of the stigma, sexual assaults often are unreported, and few rapists are brought to trial. The U.N. received 38,000 reports of gender-based violence in the Syrian conflict in 2013 alone. From 2006-2007, during the Congalese civil war, more than 400,000 girls and women were raped. Refugee families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Myanmar and Somalia, often cite rape or the fear of rape highly influenced their decision to flee, according to a 1996 UNICEF report.
Where there is war, there is rape. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Activists and political leaders are successfully bringing that message to the world stage.
“It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict -- there is nothing inevitable about it,” said Angelina Jolie, special envoy for the High-Commission on Refugees and A-list American actress in London for the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Global Summit earlier this month.
The summit centered around release of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, created to improve documentation, investigation and assistance for rape victims in conflict worldwide. The protocol aims to increase indictments and prosecution. Finally, victims may experience justice.
The summit also featured a three-day hackathon. Working together around the clock, teams of techies, diplomats and sexual violence experts created tech solutions to end sexual violence. The application designs were then judged by a panel of experts.
The Promise, an app that finds help and protection for survivors of sexual violence in the Syrian civil war, won the top prize of $2,000 to further develop the application. It’s hard to imagine that a techie’s application can fight the savagery of sexual violence in places like Syria, but The Promise allows private and secure documentation, which is exactly what it will take to prosecute and end systematic rape.
All six app submissions were placed on open source network for international development organizations and charities to use.
“So many people have worked so hard for so many years on this issue and it has always seemed that the odds were totally against them,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who headlined the summit with Jolie.
“But it turns out from this summit that we can bring together a whole army from around the globe – an army of people of all ages, from all walks of life, spanning every religion and every conceivable cultural difference, from artists to legal experts and doctors, all united with the common vision of ending warzone rape and sexual violence and now that it has been put together this army is not going to be disbanded.”