Only by documenting the horrors of sexual violence in conflict zones can we hold perpetrators to account

Professionals working on the ground in Syria to help survivors and bring their cases to light deserve all of our admiration

Tariq Ahmad
Friday 23 November 2018 09:45
Homs, Syria: ruined lives need proper support if they are to be rebuilt
Homs, Syria: ruined lives need proper support if they are to be rebuilt

This week, as the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, I am honoured to be hosting the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Film Festival in London. The event will shine a spotlight on sexual violence in conflict, highlight the need to take decisive action on a global scale, and take forward the fight against impunity and stigma.

Around the world, sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war on a scale that is truly appalling. This is particularly true of Syria: according to a United Nations Commission of Inquiry report earlier this year, “no one had been unaffected by sexual and gender-based violence during the Syrian conflict”. This horrifies us all – based on the UN’s findings, we are talking about a whole generation of people affected mentally and physically by these violent crimes.

But individuals and communities, with the UK’s assistance, are working to give voice to survivors and support them to secure justice. I am honoured to share today the voices of two Syrian activists who have done just that.

The UK is at the forefront of the international community’s efforts to secure justice for survivors, shatter the culture of impunity, and tackle the stigma faced by survivors. In 2014 we hosted the largest ever summit on preventing sexual violence in conflict, bringing together governments, NGOs, experts and survivors to begin to change global attitudes to these crimes. In Syria, we have given £10 million through our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support gender-related projects since the start of the crisis, including supporting Syrian organisations to raise awareness of women’s rights, to treat survivors of sexual violence, and to document medical evidence for use in any future prosecutions. And we have provided £30 million to the UN Population Fund in Syria to help reduce and mitigate gender-based violence, and provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.

The professionals working on the ground in Syria to support survivors and bring their cases to light deserve all of our admiration. Their stories, shared here for the first time, reveal the importance of documenting sexual violence in conflict to build up a body of evidence for prosecutions, to hold perpetrators to account, and to help deter future sexual violence.

Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon is the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict

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A documentation expert working on recording sexual and gender based violence in Syria

All our work documenting sexual violence cases is confidential. Names are kept concealed, and files are codified. The documented cases constitute a file on which legal action could be based in the future. It is the right of these women to have justice done, and to punish the perpetrators of these acts. There is a real fear of attack or threats to doctors involved in documenting these abuses.

Destroyed buildings and reconstruction in Raqqa

There is no denying that there were acts of violence, rape and sexual abuse before the revolution, but numbers then were meagre as there was law and punishment in place then. Since the revolution, huge numbers of cases have been reported from the detention centres. Most of the documented cases are of female detainees held by the regime. The acts of violence ranged from sexual harassment to forceful stripping of clothes to rape and further worse instances. Sexual violence was practised in some areas as a weapon to intimidate a particular group to move to another area. There were also cases from the refugee camps because no accountability system was in place.

We focus on educating women on their rights. We need to try to change stereotyping in the community, to knock down the wall of silence of women and rid them of the social stigma attached to victims. When a son is detained and then released, society tells the father “be proud of him and keep your head high because he was a detainee”. Why not so when the detainee is a woman? She was detained, and she could have done nothing to prevent it. And when she was abused violently outside jail, she was the victim, not the perpetrator. We need to alter the way society views these women.

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A medical professional involved in treating survivors

The organisation I work for specialises in documenting cases of sexual violence that have taken place in detention centres. We also receive cases that require medical, psychological services or legal assistance, and we try to help them with that too, referring them to other organisations who can help.

I do this work in my spare time, usually a day or two a week. For security reasons I cannot discuss the nature of my work with anyone; even those closest to me are unaware of what I do. Just by meeting with someone who has just been released from a regime detention centre I am putting myself in danger.

Due to the stigma surrounding the issue, women who have suffered from sexual violence whilst in detention often have no one to support them, and are often turned away by their families. They hear about us through other survivors, nurses or first aid centres. They do not tell anyone about what has happened to them as they worry about the community’s perception. We are most often the only people who have heard what they have been through.

During the year and a half that I have been doing this, one case really touched me personally. When I was receiving my training, I attended the case of a woman in her 50s who was gang-raped by teenagers. She said they were the age of her children. Her words still echo in my ears and I cannot get the images out of my mind.

Each story I have heard is painful. These stories must come out to the public. These injustices must be stopped once and for all.

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Syria has been under tyranny and oppression for 20 or 30 years. I do not want my children to go through the same thing. There are individuals who have been in jail for months or years, in unimaginable conditions. I do not want us to continue to live under fear of torture and violence from the police-state regime – not being able to raise our voices in protest. One day I hope that we will be able to live freely like a normal country.

Sometimes I feel like this hope is a bit far-fetched. But when I look at other countries which have experienced civil wars like us, or even when I look at the First and Second World War, places where people’s lives eventually came together again, I regain some hope.