Skip to main content

Rape is shredding Syria's social fabric

By Lauren Wolfe, Special to CNN
December 5, 2012 -- Updated 2302 GMT (0702 HKT)
Syrian women walk past a closed shop in Azaz. Violence against women is a big part of the war in Syria.
Syrian women walk past a closed shop in Azaz. Violence against women is a big part of the war in Syria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lauren Wolfe: Rape is a weapon that destroys individuals, families, communities
  • Wolfe's group is documenting reports of rape as they come in on live map of Syria
  • Wolfe: More than 20% of women in reports are killed after rape; some kill themselves
  • Social shame drives killings, she says, and international community must intervene

Editor's note: Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. The group's site features a real-time interactive map on reports of rape in Syria. Wolfe is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and blogs at laurenmwolfe.com. Follow her on Twitter, @Wolfe321.

(CNN) -- A woman approached me as I was rushing toward the D.C. Metro after giving a talk on rape in Syria last month. She asked in a low voice if she could share some information. She had DVDs, she said. On them were testimonies of Syrian women who'd been raped; in particular, a mother, a daughter and a sister all in one family.

In a taxi recently en route to Heathrow Airport, I was told another startling story. The driver turned to me and said, "I am Syrian. And I have a story to tell you that I keep wishing is not true."

His eyes welled up as he relayed what his neighbor said happened to a friend. The neighbor described being stopped in his car at a Syrian checkpoint on the road from Zabadani to Damascus. He said army officers told him to leave his daughter with them. My driver said he knew no other details than this, that the man had been given a horrific choice to make: leave his daughter behind, or his wife and other children would be killed in front of his eyes.

Women Under Siege posts an interactive map of reports of rapes. https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/.
Women Under Siege posts an interactive map of reports of rapes. https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/.

The man made a decision, the driver said. He left his daughter at the checkpoint and drove on.

I keep wishing it is not true, too, but what I told the driver that day is that his story sounds all too familiar: Of the hundreds of cases of sexualized violence against Syrian women and men I have heard and documented as the director of the Women Under Siege project at the Women's Media Center, many fit this pattern of women and girls being raped at checkpoints.

Read more: Syrian family hides from attacks in underground 'prison'

And the story from the woman in Washington falls all too neatly into the pattern of ripping apart families -- rape and other forms of sexualized violence have long been used as a tool of war to destroy not only individual bodies but entire communities. What is happening in Syria is no exception.

Lauren Wolfe
Lauren Wolfe

In an attempt to not lose a single story that could be used as possible evidence for future war crimes trials, we are documenting reports of sexualized violence on a live, crowd-sourced map on Syria. We know, however, that evidence of crimes is being destroyed every day: More than 20% of the women in our reports are found dead or are killed after rape.

Broken down by type of crime and perpetrator, each case is marked as a red dot on the map and contains up to dozens or even hundreds of victims. Each dot is a life or lives potentially ripped apart by a horrific act of violence, an act that is particularly powerful as a weapon in Syria, where honor is so highly prized.

No defenses against chemical weapons
Mortar strikes school in refugee camp
Aleppo power out, rubble everywhere

Rape is tearing Syrians apart. The concept of purity is destroying their lives on top of it.

The International Rescue Committee, referring to Syria, reported in August that "girl-child survivors of rape are frequently married to their older cousins or other male members of the community, to 'save their honor.' " Participants in adolescent girl groups told the IRC that if a girl is raped, "Sometimes she might be killed by her family. She might kill herself. ... She knows that she will be dishonored for the rest of her life."

Honor killings, forced marriages and divorce are just a few of the ways shame is destroying lives in Syria. There is also suicide when the shame becomes too much to bear, such as the story on our map telling of a girl in Latakia who reportedly killed herself by jumping off a balcony after rape.

But the concept of honor is failing Syrian women in another way.

Read more: NATO stands with Turkey as Syrian violence spills over borders

"What I always think about is how women have tried to persuade the perpetrators not to attack them by asking to think of them as their sisters," said one of the Syrian researchers on our mapping project.

"In Arab culture, a real man will protect his sister at any price. He is expected to take revenge if someone dishonors her. His sister is his responsibility even if she is married because blood relation is stronger than marriage. The women were appealing to whatever remnant of manhood and Arab honor these attackers might still have. Unfortunately, they had none."

The unending "dishonor" and manipulation of Syrians through sexualized violence is committed by all sides, although the majority of our reports indicate government perpetrators. It is creating an entire nation of traumatized people: not just the survivors of the acts, but their children as well.

It is time to stop it all. There are measures the world can take to bring these horrors to an end. Shame should never fall on victims, but should be used to compel Russia to join a U.N. Security Council call for the Syrian government's alleged crimes to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Governments can help humanitarian groups that offer medical and psychosocial services for survivors. Syrian women's rights organizations are already taking action to combat and respond to gender-based violence, including organizing family-based care for displaced children of survivors. The international community can and should support Syrian civil society in this work.

Shame is a powerful feeling that causes retreat. It causes us to lower our heads and look away. But we have a chance to lift up the survivors of sexualized violence in Syria and honor them by paying attention, by caring enough to bring their suffering to an end, by telling them that we do not accept the violence against them.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lauren Wolfe.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT