Why is the U.S. media ignoring rape in Syria?

There's plenty of American news coverage about the Syrian refugee crisis. But most of it is missing the real horror

Published March 9, 2013 3:30PM (EST)

           (AP/Khalil Hamra)
(AP/Khalil Hamra)

The past several weeks have been filled with news reports about the catastrophic proportions of the Syrian refugee crisis. One news report after another describes disintegrating communities, lack of water and electricity, and the multidimensional hardships refugees face as they struggle to survive. With very few exceptions, however, these reports ignore rape and sexualized violence as a component of the crisis.

An International Rescue Committee report issued in January included surveys of Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan identifying “rape as a primary reason their families fled the country.” Less than two weeks ago, Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner for protection of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, explained while reporting to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, “This displacement is not only about loss of homes and economic security. It is also accompanied by gender-based crimes, deliberate victimization of women and children, and a frightening array of assaults on human dignity.”  She specifically added, “Reports are revealing 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.”

The IRC, the U.N. High Commissioner for RefugeesAmnesty International, and the Syrian Human Rights Committee consistently report that the role that rape and sexual assault play in this evolving disaster is significant; however, you would never know this by reading most mainstream U.S. media reporting. Despite the difficulties of gathering and verifying data regarding sexualized violence, there is no shortage of available data.

The Women Under Siege Project, which tracks the incidence of rape in militarized zones, has been collecting and mapping incidents of rape and sexualized violence taking place in Syria since April 2012. Women Under Siege is not suggesting that rapes have been ordered by the Assad regime (although the Syrian Human Rights Committee has documented rapes being ordered), but documenting rape and sexualized violence via detailed submissions gathered by journalists, researchers, doctors and activists. According to Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege Project and an award-winning investigative journalist, victims range in age from toddlers to men in their 50s. Eighty percent of them are girls and women – many of whom are attacked in homes, at checkpoints and elsewhere in public. Men and boys are more likely to be assaulted in detention. One report describes the treatment for rape of more than 2,000 Syrian girls and women in Damascus, including some as young as 7. While anecdotal, stories like these are corroborated by first-person refugee accounts made to the International Rescue Committee, the Syrian Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch.

Even if rape and sexualized torture are not being used overtly and systematically as weapons by leaders in Syria, it is clear that the militarized context, like most, is enabling this type of violence for the purposes of punishment, intimidation and terror and that rape and violence against girls and women is further enabled, sometimes as a function of honor-code traditions, once families are refugees.

And yet, most mainstream media here continues to ignore this reality. Last Monday, for example, the Washington Post ran a lengthy story titled “In grim milestone, UN says number of Syrian refugees tops 1 million.” Like others pivoting around realization of the proportions of the crisis, the article was lengthy and detailed in its discussion of the causes, consequences and destabilizing regional effect caused by the massive out-flux of fleeing Syrians into neighboring states.  The content and tone of the piece was similar to a July 2012 Congressional Research Service assessment summary to Congress, "Armed Conflict In Syria: US and International Responses." It reviewed the Syrian state’s collapse and made recommendations for possible steps the U.S. should take. The report mentioned the importance of Syrian leaders’ “kinship ties” and fighters’ and community “morale” in the conduct and passage of ongoing conflict. However, it did not mention the fact that rape and sexualized violence, which at that time were already evident in humanitarian relief reports, are unique in the way they redefine “weapon” and “conflict,” affect kinship ties, communities and morale, and by extension, state security and disintegration.

Like the Washington Post article, and others, the report explained that fleeing “residents have been cut off from food, fuel, medical care, and water.” This is true, but residents are also saying that they are either being sexually assaulted or fear sexual violence as a primary driver in their decision to flee. Rape continues fail to make the cut as we weigh and measure what is important and just, and how to derive sensible long-term resolutions to conflict and peace that includes girls and women. 

Until relatively recently, we have had a strong cultural media preference to ignore rape, regardless of its context. It is a difficult and ugly subject. Even when media does cover the topic, it does so using “family friendly” terms.  It is one thing to read, and mentally compartmentalize, the words “sexual assault,” but another to wrap your brain around the horrifying fact that men are making parents give up their daughters in exchange for their lives, or that others in “security forces” gain power and spread terror by forcing girls and women to watch them feed a rat into another woman’s vagina while they mock and taunt her.

After escaping assaults in Syria, girls and women face the additional insecurity of chaotic refugee camps. Reports from the agencies listed above describe victims being killed by their families for honor's sake; if not killed, some are pressured to kill themselves. Others are married, often to older men in host countries, to save honor, including girls as young as 14. Many of these marriages are compelled and, in effect, second rapes.

“Child marriages” further imperil the health and lives of girls who are physically unprepared to bear children. Some women, if already married, are dealt with violently, divorced and abandoned by their families. In addition, boys and men who are raped often do not ever reveal their assaults and live with sometimes debilitating emotional and psychological consequences by themselves. They often have no access to care suitable to their needs, physical or otherwise. Because men usually perpetrate their assaults, male victims are subject to homophobic social censure and laws. Under these circumstances it is remarkable that anyone reports rape or seeks redress or medical attention. And yet they are, in sufficient numbers that relief workers are consistently struck by volume of reports made despite the tremendous taboos and consequences.

Gender-based, sexualized violence is broadly destabilizing to a collapsing state and its immediate neighbors. 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.

The failure to consider these realities in our assessment and our reporting is also reflected in peace-building efforts. As it is, there is a “near total absence of women from official peacekeeping,”  post-conflict transitional governments, and definitions of “peace” that are informed by women’s experiences and lives. This is a situation that results in flawed, limited and ineffective solutions – solutions that do not address how “peace” might be differently defined for girls and women.

This isn’t new. In all conflict, sexualized violence has a unique and multidimensional role and for the most part the role it plays during war and after “peace” is ignored or trivialized as important “enough” to measure or remark upon. For example, according to historian Anthony Beever, author of “Berlin: The Downfall 1945,” invading Russian forces raped “every German female from eight to 80.” Most people, including those well-versed in 20th century history, do not know this. (World War II, by the way, is our last, undisputed “Just” War and these widespread rapes took place during a technical “peacetime.”)

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network and a senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, has been working closely with Syrians who run non-governmental organizations in the country, as well as those organizing care and relief in refugee camps in Lebanon and Iraq. She sees a consistent pattern: “The men outside are talking power, while the women inside and in the refugee camps are shouldering the responsibility for caring for the young, the old, the sick and the traumatized. Yet their own future is at risk if the coalition turns out to have regressive attitudes towards women’s status in society.”

The American media seems intent on either ignoring the reality and relevance of rape and sexual violence, or on talking about them in terms of common victim-blaming rape mythologies focusing on rumors and taboos. This is no less a regressive and destructive failure.

By Soraya Chemaly

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