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Addressing Sexual Violence In Syria

Women take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (file)

“Sexual violence has profound, cyclical implications on the vitality of civilians and national stability."

Sexual violence is a type of gender-based violence that is carried out through sexual means or by targeting one’s gender. Although it affects women and girls most significantly, men and boys can also be victims.

Syrian women report that rapes are being committed by multiple perpetrators in public and private, often in front of the victim’s family, to set a horrifying example for those who would defy the Assad regime. Though difficult to quantify, clearly sexual violence is a serious problem in Syria. A recent report by the International Rescue Committee notes that many refugees, both male and female, cited sexual violence as a main reason to flee.

“Sexual violence has profound, cyclical implications on the vitality of civilians and national stability,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Patricia Haslach who spoke recently at a University of Toronto conference. “The act physically, mentally, and emotionally impacts the individual, but its effects can undermine communities…the issue of sexual violence is as critical as political questions surrounding the transition.”

Unfortunately, gender-based violence is under-reported, kept secret by the victims for fear of shaming and persecution.

Gender-based violence must be treated as a serious issue by policymakers. Women must be included in the decision making process. Governments and societies must end the culture of impunity that allows perpetrators to walk free, even as blame is heaped on the victims. The United States has been absolutely clear that perpetrators of sexual violence and other crimes must be held accountable.

Last August, the United States launched the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, which lays out a comprehensive approach to addressing gender-based violence. The United States has also supported efforts by the Syria Justice and Accountability Center and the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry to collect documentation and evidence regarding atrocities in Syria, including sexual violence.

Thus, the United States takes a multi-pronged approach to addressing gender-based violence, including working to ensure appropriate care for survivors while also strengthening deterrents against gender-based violence.

“Sexual violence in our international community is not just a health concern, not just a social issue, and not just a criminal justice issue. It is an attack against human dignity that undermines transitioning states,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Haslach. “It is a war crime and must be treated as such.”