Unseen Wounds: Confronting the devastating reality of sexual violence in the Middle East

Experts reveal the pervasive nature of sexual violence in the region, calling for urgent legal reforms and societal change to protect women and girls.

 A view of houses in Kibbutz Kfar Aza four months after the October 7 massacre. (photo credit: ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS)
A view of houses in Kibbutz Kfar Aza four months after the October 7 massacre.

Girls and women worldwide continue to face horrifying violence: rape, loss of control over their bodies, and irreparable wounds. The pain after such traumas never fades. June 19 marked the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, recognizing the resilience of those who have faced sexual assault.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

Sexual violence in the Middle East is an especially alarming and pervasive issue. Women and girls across the region face significant risks, both in conflict zones and in their daily lives.

The Media Line spoke to humanitarian organizations and experts on sexual violence in the Middle East to get insights on this issue.

Diana Nammi, executive director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organization (IKWRO), which provides advice and support to Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan women who survived sexual violence, shared with The Media Line that sexual violence within the region is a complex and deeply rooted issue influenced by a multitude of cultural, social, political, and economic factors as well as social norms.

According to Nammi, many Middle East and North African (MENA) countries have weak legal frameworks for addressing sexual violence, as laws might be outdated or poorly enforced. Nammi shared that in some cases, marital rape is not recognized, and perpetrators might escape justice if they marry their victims.

 Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, February 26, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/Siegfried Modola)
Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, February 26, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/Siegfried Modola)

“In many MENA societies, the concepts of honor and shame are pivotal. Women’s sexuality is often tied to family honor, making sexual violence particularly stigmatizing. Victims might be blamed and ostracized. Patriarchal norms dominate, with men holding primary power. It can lead to the normalization of male control over women’s bodies, resulting in higher instances of sexual violence,” Nammi explained.

“The difficulty in obtaining justice for sexual violence can make it feel more oppressive. The lack of support structures and the potential for victimization within the legal system deter many from seeking help,” she added.

Nammi explained that cultural norms in some parts of MENA often lead to blaming the victim, causing social ostracism and loss of reputation for the victim and their families.

“In extreme cases, victims may face honor killings or forced marriages,” she said.

Statistical underestimation

Most of the statistics on sexual violence is underestimated due to the nature of such crimes. Victims often are unable to report abuse due to shame and fear. However, statistics show that in Egypt, around 44% of women have experienced sexual harassment. In Iraq, approximately 45.3% have faced intimate partner violence. In Yemen, ongoing conflict exposes women and girls to sexual violence by armed groups. Lebanese women and girls also face substantial risks of sexual and gender-based violence. While the Palestinian territories struggle to provide specific statistics on sexual violence, gender-based violence remains prevalent.

Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director at the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, shared with The Media Line that in more traditional and religious communities, like the Arab or ultra-religious communities, it’s less acceptable to talk about sexual violence.

“If you are an Israeli who is part of the ultra-Orthodox community, and you share that you were exposed to sexual violence, it might influence your ability to find a partner, and not only of yourself but also of your sisters and brothers, because your family’s reputation is not as ‘clean’ as before,” she said.

Sulitzeanu added that people who were sexually abused are often embarrassed and ashamed to talk about their experience.

“It causes people to carry a big secret which influences their personality. For example, a mother that was sexually abused and never talked about it can transfer her fears to her children,” she said.

Sulitzeanu explained the complexity of sexual violence, and that for many survivors it might take years to understand that they were abused.

“For example, if you got attacked by a father or someone who is close to you, you may feel like it was something romantic. It can take many years to understand that you were hurt,” she said.

“Sexual violence hurts the soul of the survivor, causing them not to be able to return to the workplace, have a family, partner or children. It has a lot of horrific consequences,” Sulitzeanu added.

She explained that modern research shows that sexual violence strongly influences health. Moreover, due to psychological trauma, many survivors are unable to visit doctors who check the private parts of the body or dentists.

Nammi further shared that sexual violence in the MENA communities has severe impacts on society.

“Victims often sustain physical injuries that require medical treatment, sometimes leading to chronic health issues. Women might face complications like unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and gynecological problems. Risk of STIs, including HIV/AIDS, increases, particularly in conflict zones where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war,” she said.

Sulitzeanu emphasized that statistics in the Western world must also be considered. She shared that one out of three women and one out of six men experience sexual violence during their lifetime.

“These are horrific statistics that show that sexual violence is a social phenomenon. It’s not a problem of a few people,” she said.

According to Nammi, some countries in the Middle East have made significant legal reforms to protect victims of sexual violence better.

“For example, Jordan and Lebanon have abolished laws that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. Tunisia has enacted comprehensive legislation aimed at preventing violence against women and providing better support for victims,” she said.

Nammi noted that despite legal reforms, enforcement remains a significant issue.

“Corruption, lack of training among law enforcement, and judicial biases continue to prevent victims from obtaining justice,” she said.

Sexual violence is still used as a tool of war and as a devastating form of attack and repression. A recent, particularly horrific example is the October 7 attack on Israel, during which Hamas terrorists committed sexual crimes against Israeli women.

Sulitzeanu explained that the situation of sexual violence in Israel has become worse since the war with Hamas.

“Our society has suffered from a national trauma. Many women today feel that their home is not a safe place and that anybody can penetrate their homes and bodies. What happened in Israel was horrific and traumatic. Imagine being at your house, while suddenly terrorists entered the house, raped, maybe raped children, and killed,” she said.

“We’re still now in the phase of collecting more information and evidence and trying to have a full understanding of what has happened, but we will never know, and we will never have total information because most of the victims of this horrific violence are dead,” Sulitzeanu added.

She shared that in Israel, former victims of sexual violence are now triggered. The country’s Association of Rape Crisis Center now has more calls to the hotlines from former survivors.

“The war now made their trauma rise, and some of them cannot return to regular life,” she explained.

According to Sulitzeanu, due to the war, Israel now faces a so-called “new hierarchy of pain and suffering.”

“If you are a victim of the October 7 massacre, then society embraces you. But no one embraces you if you’re just a victim of incest or regular sexual violence. Because regular sexual violence is not seen as the same as sexual violence because of the war. I don’t think it’s fair. The suffering is suffering and the impact is for many years,” she said.

Nammi explained that sexual violence serves to break the will of communities and individuals.

“By targeting women and girls, perpetrators aim to demoralize and destabilize communities, breaking their social fabric and morale,” she added.

Nammi shared that another recent example of the issue is the situation in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State systematically used sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery, against Yazidi women and girls as part of their campaign of terror and genocide. During the Syrian civil war, various factions have employed sexual violence to intimidate and control populations, particularly in areas of heavy conflict.

“Addressing the issue of sexual violence in the Middle East requires a multifaceted and collaborative approach involving governments, civil society, international organizations, and individuals,” Nammi said.

She emphasized that it’s necessary to enact and enforce comprehensive laws that criminalize all forms of sexual violence, improve the legal and judicial systems and encourage countries to ratify and implement international conventions like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“We need to launch widespread public education campaigns, increase the availability of shelters, counseling, and legal aid, create economic opportunities and provide vocational training for women to reduce dependency and vulnerability, provide targeted support for refugees and internally displaced persons, leverage international pressure to encourage governments to take stronger actions against sexual violence and raise awareness of the issue,” said Nammi.

She also emphasized the importance of engaging men and boys as allies in the fight against sexual violence, promoting positive masculinity and respect for women.

Sulitzeanu shared that acknowledgment and validation are essential.

“Society needs to understand that sexual violence is abuse of power. The strong one abuses their power over the less strong person. It could be a father, an elder brother, a teacher, and so forth,” she told The Media Line.

Another important aspect, according to Sulitzeanu, is to make the law enforcement system trauma-oriented.

“Police have to treat in a lot of respect the person who comes to complain, and all of the process, which is very hard, from the day you arrive to the police station until the months and years when you are in the prosecution until the time you go to court, you have to have the judges, the prosecutors, and the policemen that are very trauma-oriented,” she concluded.