Syrian government forces are increasingly using sexual violence and gang rapes as a weapon of war in the conflict there, according to a project using social networking technology to document each reported attack.
Published last week by the New York-based Women’s Media Center, as part of its Women Under Siege project, the research uses a crowd-sourced mapping platform to pinpoint where rapes or sexual attacks have been reported and allows victims to report any further cases in real time.
According to the information gathered by the project, there were more than 80 reported incidents of rape – some of them including more than one attack – from the onset of the conflict in March 2011 through June 2012. The report breaks them down into 117 pieces of data, including information on everything from the rape itself to the consequences of the attacks, such as depression, HIV and pregnancy.
“Even if only a fraction of these particular reports are accurate, we are still getting a taste of what is going on in Syria,” Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview over the weekend.
She explained that most of the reports are based on data collected by local and international journalists and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, and on the ground reports from activists and citizens.
“I can’t vouch for each individual story, but I do know that there is no conflict anywhere that has not involved some kind of sexual element,” said Wolfe, an award-winning journalist who has written for publications from the International Herald Tribune to CNN.com.
“For me, the information we have received paints an entirely plausible picture of the situation in Syria, and it is extremely terrifying,” she said.
Wolfe said the most shocking thing revealed by the data is the fact that government forces had perpetrated most of the rapes, even though the team of researchers who put together the report welcomed information from both sides of the conflict.
“I am sure that eventually we will receive information that both sides have carried out such acts – there was a report from HRW saying that the Free Syrian Army has committed human rights abuses – but so far we have not heard anything against them,” she said.
Among the most shocking atrocities carried out by those loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and documented in the data is the report of a teenage girl kidnapped by government forces and kept locked in an apartment with other young women. She recalled being injected with an unknown substance that left her paralyzed, and then being raped by undercover security forces. The girl also recounted how one soldier burned her genitals with a hot iron. She is now being treated in Jordan, the report said.
The crowd-sourced mapping shows that such sexualized attacks appear to be widespread and not limited to one city. It also shows that most of the attacks took place against women (80 percent) and nearly half involved more than one rapist, suggesting a disturbingly high rate of gang rape, the report said.
“The fact that a large portion of the alleged crimes involved multiple attackers indicates possible coordinated, orchestrated or systematic violence without restraints on the behavior of government and other forces,” Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, commented in the report.
In addition, the report shows that 20 percent of women were allegedly killed during the sexualized violence or found dead after being violated.
Founded in 2005 by American activists Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, the Women’s Media Center aims to make women and girls visible and powerful in the media through advocacy campaigns, media monitoring for sexism, creating original content, training women and girls to participate in the media, and connecting women experts with the media.
Commenting on the use of the crowd-sourced mapping tool, Steinem said, “At last we are gaining ways of reporting what is happening in real time to real people on the ground, women and men.”