Earlier this month, the EU and the UN co-chaired the Brussels III Conference on how to achieve a lasting political solution to the Syrian crisis, now entering its ninth year. The EU mobilized significant financial support at the conference, collecting humanitarian aid pledges totaling €8.3 billion; Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, reiterated that the EU “will step up investment in education, healthcare, and regular employment so refugees become more self-reliant and can live in dignity and normality.”
Unfortunately, there is an all-too-often overlooked element of protracted conflicts like the one in Syria which must be addressed in order to allow the war’s survivors to live in dignity and normality: the rampant use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, as well as the damaging stigma which often follows.
Harrowing tales of abuse, with little support
A report recently released by Syrian advocacy group Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) has shed light on the widespread rape and sexual abuse of prisoners, including many men, in Syrian government custody. More than 100,000 detainees remain unaccounted for in Syria, and according to the new report, many of these have experienced sexual violence of the most horrific kinds while being interrogated or kept captive in pitch-black cells. Over 40% of the men interviewed by the LDHR said that they had been sexually assaulted by Syrian security forces.
This startlingly prevalent abuse has left these former political prisoners with lasting trauma which continues to affect them after having been freed from custody. Three-quarters of the victims LDHR contacted outlined the depression and flashbacks they have experienced since their release. Even in the rare cases these men seek help—male victims are far less likely to seek counselling than female victims—humanitarian groups in the region are already overwhelmed and often do not have the training needed to provide specialized services to men who have survived sexual violence.
The consequences of this lack of appropriate support can be devastating. One psychiatrist working in Turkey with Syrian refugees told of former detainees who have committed suicide after having suffered such abuse: “Coming from conservative societies, these men often leave feeling destroyed and humiliated as men. The patients we see often believe that they cannot recover from that”.
A weapon of war in its own right
This sense of shame and isolation is often the abusers’ express intent, as the experiences of countless victims from around the world have shown. One Syrian woman was told by her attacker, a security officer, that she “would never be clean again.” Devastatingly, her story is not an outlier: widespread rape and sexual humiliation are part of a concerted strategy which the Syrian government and many other groups have employed to break combatants and tear apart familial structures.
For example, thousands of women from the persecuted Yazidi religious minority were kidnapped, sold to Islamic State fighters and forced to endure brutal physical and sexual abuse. Though the territory controlled by the extremist group has been whittled down to nearly nothing, the women who were enslaved are still fighting discrimination from their own communities while working through their trauma.
One study indicated that 45% of freed Yazidi feel “extremely excluded” by their communities; 40% avoid social events and other people “as a result of fear of being rejected or stigmatized”. The fact that Yazidi culture traditionally does not allow intermarriage or sexual relations with other faiths only exacerbates this anxiety and isolation.
Victims calling for justice and assistance
The sexual violence employed as a weapon of war against the Yazidi people has been particularly put in the spotlight thanks to the efforts of survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and tireless activist Nadia Murad. After six of her brothers and her mother were killed by militants, Murad endured three months of slavery before managing to escape to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Bought and sold several times during her ordeal, Murad has emerged as the face of a global campaign to free the Yazidi people and ensure justice in the aftermath of the violence. Murad has not only advocated for her fellow Yazidi women, but has used the notoriety she gained after having won the Nobel Prize to stand up for other marginalized groups which have known the scourge of wartime sexual violence. In January, for example, she spoke alongside two former British foreign secretaries at a London event highlighting the injustices suffered by the Lai Dai Han, a generation of children whose Vietnamese mothers were raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, and their mothers.
The life-long trauma and ostracization which the Lai Dai Han and their mothers have experienced underlines how critical it is for victims of such abuse to receive prompt and comprehensive support. Raped three times by Korean soldiers, Tran Thi Ngai—now 76 years old—is newly outspoken about the sexual violence she endured as a young woman. “I received a lot of criticism from the villagers and my children were treated badly by the principal of the school,” she says, “some teachers hit my children and asked them why they didn’t return to Korea with their fathers.” In Vietnam, the Lai Dai Han have difficulty accessing healthcare and social services, while the South Korean government has yet to formally acknowledge the testimonies of the Lai Dai Han and their mothers— let alone issue a long-awaited apology or offer support.
A priority which must be addressed
The damage which sexual violence has wrought on the Lai Dai Han and their mothers’ entire lives makes it clear that assisting victims of similar attacks in Syria is imperative. The investment in Syrian education, healthcare and employment which the EU promised at the recent summit is essential to rebuilding the war-torn nation. Given what recent reports have revealed as the extent of weaponized sexual violence in the country, however, it’s evident that tackling this needs to be a humanitarian priority going forward.
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