As the brutal war in Syria rages on, relief organizations have warned that sexual violence has become a "significant and disturbing feature" of the conflict.
In February, the assistant U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Erika Feller, cautioned that the conflict in Syria is "increasingly marked by rape and sexual violence employed as a weapon of war to intimidate parties to the conflict destroying identity, dignity and the social fabrics of families and communities.”
But just how widespread is the problem? The Women Under Siege Project attempts to answer that question with a crowd-sourced map documenting sexual violence in Syria.
Now one year into the project, director Lauren Wolfe reports on her findings in The Atlantic.
Some of the project's findings:
[R]ape has been reportedly used widely as a tool of control, intimidation, and humiliation throughout the conflict. And its effects, while not always fatal, are creating a nation of traumatized survivors -- everyone from the direct victims of the attacks to their children, who may have witnessed or been otherwise affected by what has been perpetrated on their relatives.
- 80 percent of the reports include female victims; 20 percent of reports include male victims
- Ages of female victims ranged from 7 to 46
- Gang rape allegedly occurred in 40 percent of the reports about women
- Nearly 50 percent of reports about men involve rape, while 25 percent detail sexual violence without penetration, such as shocks to the genitals
It is very difficult to gather accurate statistics on sexual assaults. Many survivors do not report rape because of the stigma associated with it. In some cases, victims of sexual assault are killed afterwards. "Atrocities are inevitably muted when victims die, and perpetrators worldwide know this," writes Wolfe. "Part of the reason we've chosen to live-track sexualized violence in Syria is because so much evidence is lost in war."
The United Nations estimates that at least 70,000 people have lost their lives since the start of the conflict in March 2011. More than a million Syrians have crossed into neighboring countries to flee the violence.
According to a January report by the International Rescue Committee, many Syrians identified rape as a primary reason their families fled to neighboring countries.
There have also been reports of horrific abuse and rape in Syria's detention centers. “The daily rape took place in front of the other girls. That was the time they would remove the blindfold so the girls could see what was happening before their eyes, and wouldn’t know when their turn would come,” said one woman who was held prisoner, according to a BBC report.
At Salon, writer Soraya Chemaly argues that news reports have ignored the role of sexual violence in Syria. "Gender-based, sexualized violence is broadly destabilizing to a collapsing state and its immediate neighbors," she writes. "It is a weaponization that we don’t acknowledge and has a destructive fractal effect on society that far exceeds the parameters of any one incident of actual assault."
For a primer on the Syrian crisis, take a look at some of the key events and major players over the past 24 months.
Visit Women Under Siege's website for a full list of the sexual violence reports.