The fights in Syria started in March 2011, and, according to the UN, in February 2013 the death toll had reached 70 000. Here it's the city of Homs that is being hit by shelling. June 2012. Photo: UN Photo/David Manya.
The situation in Syria is critical, especially for women and children. Society is being destroyed by war and violence and the consequences will be long-term. The Iraqi women’s rights and peace organisation Warvin recently went to Syria and reports that women’s rights are being increasingly threatened.
In April, a representative* of the Iraqi organisation Warvin Foundation for Women’s Issues visited Syria. For three days he travelled around and spoke to civilians living in various cities.
In Aleppo, all the people he met told him that living conditions are very hard and asked him for help to reach out internationally with their stories.
– The people I met told me that they haven’t had electricity for six months and that the mobile phones don’t work. Everything is expensive, if you want to buy 1 kilogram of potatoes, it costs more than 4 dollars. Also, they don’t have any gas or petrol. I saw many people who were sick, but treatment and medicine is very expensive, if available at all.
We’ve heard reports about sexual violence during the conflict. Did people say anything about that?
–Because of the situation it’s difficult to find any documentation. But people told me that many women were raped. One big problem is that if for example you are a sunni muslim man who rape a shia or Alawi muslim woman, it is seen as a success story.
You mean that rape is used as a tool to punish other religious or ethnic groups?
– Yes, exactly.
Conservative group in control
Another thing that worries the Warvin representative is the advance of the conservative military group Jabhat Al Nusra (”The support front for the people of greater Syria”), supported by Al-Quaeda. The group now controls the whole Aleppo area.
– Jabhat Al Nusra tells women and children to wear scarves. At checkpoints they stop the buses to check if the women inside wear scarves and if they don’t, they will be taken outside and punished. They cut the hair of one Kurdish girl at a checkpoint, because she didn’t wear a hijab.
The Warvin representative was also told that members of Jabhat Al Nusra throw stones on cars in Aleppo that are driven by women and that the group has forbidden women to wear jeans.
– They want to practice Islamic sharia law. In the city of Derezor, with a mixed population of Kurds, Christians and Turkomens, Jabhat Al Nusra has already established sharia courts.
No promotion of peace
He is not optimistic about the future of Syria. The different military groups are all supported by foreign actors, who push for their own interests in Syria rather than promoting peace and human rights, he says.
During his visit, he did not come across any specific peace initiatives. According to him, the Syrian opposition does not have a road-map for the future of Syria.
– They have no clear vision of what the country should be like after Assad’s regime has fallen, regarding for example human rights, women’s rights and rights of ethnic minorities.
He is disappointed about the fact that although more than two million Kurds live in Syria, the Syrian opposition has not yet recognized the difficulties this group faces. The situation for Kurds, as well as for Christians and other minority groups, was bad already under Assad, and it has not improved, he says.
– In Aleppo there have been systematic thefts taking place, supported by Jabhat Al Nusra and The Free Syrian Army. They ask Kurds and Christians to sell their houses to sunni people, and then force them to leave the city. No one looks after the rights of the Kurdish people.
International actors should take action
The Warvin representative would like to see international actors like the United States and countries in Europe to take action to solve the situation. In his opinion, European countries should force China, Iran and Russia to cut their funding to Bashar Al-Assad’s government. He also thinks that they should ask Saudi Arabia and Turkey and others to cut their funding of fundamentalistic islamic groups.
– This is crucial for democracy, women’s rights, human rights and freedom of speech. People wanted to get rid of Assad because of a lack of democracy. If fundamentlist groups take control over Syria, the war will continue, says the Warvin representative.
* For safety reasons the representative wants to be anonymous.
The landmark Arms Trade Treaty regulates the international trade in conventional arms, from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. Photo: worldislandinfo.com
On April 2, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the first ever Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This treaty would regulate the multi-billion dollar global arms trade and thus end the lack of regulations of cross-border conventional arms sales. Included in the treaty are binding provisions to prevent armed gender-based violence.
The treaty demands that conventional weapon-exporting states evaluate the risks of arms being used to “commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women,” (article 7.4) or whether weapons will be used to break humanitarian law, for acts of genocide, war crimes or terrorism. It also requires states to prevent conventional weapons to reach the black market. It is the first treaty that recognizes that there is a connection between arms and gender based violence.
It took seven years to negotiate the treaty, and Iran, North Korea and Syria had blocked its adoption by consensus last minute in March. The treaty’s adoption required agreement by all 193 U.N. member states. British UN ambassador Mark Grant found a way to get around the blockade by asking Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to put it to a swift vote in the General Assembly. There the member-states voted for the treaty by 154 votes to three, with 23 abstentions.
These numbers reflect the growing international sentiment that there must be some kind of a moral standard for weapons trade.
The treaty also establishes an international forum of states that will review published reports of arms sales and publicly name violators.
Before the treaty will come into effect, it needs to be signed and ratified by at least 50 states. There is no specific enforcement mechanism, the hope is that even nations reluctant to ratify the treaty will feel public pressure to abide by the agreement, and that the treaty’s standards will be used immediately as political and moral guidelines.
Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, welcomed the adoption of the treaty, stating that ”The global arms trade must not be a means of aggravating the already catastrophic levels of violence against women around the world, including during conflict and post-conflict. However, UN Women underscores that women are not just of importance to the Arms Trade Treaty as victims of armed violence, but also as peacebuilders and decision-makers. Women’s crucial role in promoting peace and security, recognized in Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) and subsequent resolutions, must be recognized in all mechanisms for the monitoring and management of the arms trade.”
United Nations Security Council Meeting Room. Photo: Zack Lee, CC
Today, on April 17, the UN Security Council discusses the UN Secretary General’s 2013 report on sexual violence in war and conflict. The report highlights several emerging concerns, such as the practice of forced marriage by armed groups and the links between sexual violence and natural resource extraction.
“It is important that the UN Security Council continues to keep the focus on this issue. The Security Council plays a key role in preventing and combating the prevalence of sexual violence in war and conflict,” says Lena Ag, Secretary General of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, and continues:
“But it is worrying that sexual violence used against political dissidents, as happened during the riots after the Kenya elections in 2007 and in Conakry in Guinea in 2009, is not mentioned in this year’s report, as it was in the last year’s. Nor can rape and serious sexual harassment Egyptian women recently suffered in Tahrir Square in Cairo be found in the report. Our experience is that sexual violence and the threat thereof is one of the most common obstacles for women around the world to get access to the public sphere and to gain influence in society.
This year’s report states that:
- sexual violence is a serious war crime and elucidates that there is an evident connection to international peace and security;
- sexual violence and the number of rapes in Mali have increased;
- sexual violence is often used as a strategy to forcibly displace populations and for ethnic cleansing. One of the reasons is to get access to coveted natural resources or to facilitate drug trafficking. This happens for example in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Libya;
- in Syria, rape happens at some places and at certain times to such an extent that it could be classified as war crime and crimes against humanity. Jailed Syrian men have also been reported to be victims of rape and torture;
- forced marriage and sexual slavery has become increasingly common. Militia and guerrilla leaders in e.g. Afghanistan, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen abduct young girls, marry them for then be able to “legally” rape them. Other victims of sexual violence are forced to marry their abusers. This way the perpetrator gets away from punishment;
- activists, opposition, local politicians and their families are particularly vulnerable to threat of sexual violence and sexual violence.
The report also provides recommendations:
- women who get pregnant after being raped should be offered adequate care and access to safe abortion or emergency contraception pills;
- impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence should be counteracted and prohibited;
- efforts should be made for better monitoring and reporting on men as victims of sexual violence.
“In recent years, conservative forces with religious leanings take every opportunity to try to limit women’s rights. We saw this most recently in March at the UN’s
After the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the UN Security Council adopted in 2000 the Resolution 1325 “Women, Peace and Security
,” which is about women’s rights and participation as actors in peace processes. It was followed by the Resolutions 1820
, which further strengthen articles of Resolution 1325 (1889), and specifically target sexual violence in conflict (1820, 1888, 1960).
Commission on the Status of Women. An unholy alliance between the Vatican and Iran amongst others used every opportunity to put a spoke in the wheel of the effort to reach an agreement to end violence against women,” says Lena Ag and continues:
“It is therefore an important signal that the powerful G8 countries, with British conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague at the helm, adopted a declaration in support of the UN’s efforts against sexual violence in conflict last week.”
Anna Magnusson | Katharina Andersen
Women in Damascus, Photo: Trilli Bagus
February 18th to 20th, Syrian activists and members of the country’s opposition met in Stockholm for a three days conference to discuss ”Women’s Influence and Participation in a Post-Authoritarian Syria.”
Issues like gender quota, human rights, the constitution, peace and reconciliation, psychosocial support and women’s empowerment were among the discussed topics. The conference resulted in the foundation of The Syrian Women’s Network, as the participants decided to work closely together in the future.
Organized work for women’s rights might be essential to break the pattern women experienced in the Arab spring countries: To be an equal part of the revolution, but when it comes to decisions and peace making, they find themselves excluded.
One of the conferences’ participants, a female activist from Syria who wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons, shared her experiences of equality in decision processes at the beginning of the revolution and that this changed as the protests shifted to armed conflicts. Now women are the ones suffering the most under the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe and she was worried whether women will be able to overcome the devastating effects of war and violence and find the power to get actively involved in politics.
Now might be a good moment to start to shape the role women can have in a future Syria, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for negotiation talks on February 20th, after a meeting between Russia and the Arab League. Sitting down at a negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparable damage to Syria, he said. “Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it is a road to nowhere.”
Hopefully, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which urges the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations, will be attended and women will sit at this negotiation table as well. This would increase the chance of lasting peace and might also be a possibility to address the question of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Until now, in only three ceasefires in the world sexual violence was ever mentioned.
The situation in northern Lebanon has made a turn for the worse during the last couple of weeks, after several outbreaks of violence in connection with the civil war in Syria. In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the military presence has increased and there are significantly more weapons in circulation. But there are also people trying to stop the violence.
The escalating conflict in Syria is clearly noticeable in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Violence has broken out in the city on several occasions during the last couple of months, resulting in several deaths and injuries. In addition, many Syrians have fled across the border into northern Lebanon.
Tripoli is situated just 150 kilometers from the Syrian capital of Damascus. When civil unrest breaks out in one of the two countries, it often influences the other.
Supporters on different sides
Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström is working for the Swedish women- and peace-organization “The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation” in Lebanon. According to her, there are several ways you can interpret the recent unrest in northern Lebanon.
- There are families living on either side of the borders – some support the revolution, while others support the regime in Syria – and this creates unrest. Others argue that it is the Salafists, an ultra-orthodox Islamic movement that takes the earliest Muslims as model examples of Islamic practice, who are trying to deliberately create disorder as a way of trying to take control of the region, she says.
Salafists worse for women
One person who is worried that the Salafis will gain a greater influence in the region is Lina Abou-Habib from the women’s organization Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CTRDA). The Salafis have access to money and weapons via Saudi Arabia and Qatar and, according to Lina Abou-Habib, both these countries are trying to worsen the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
- A take-over by the Salafists would be the worst scenario possible for women, and for people at large, says Lina Abou-Habib.
According to several Lebanese women’s organizations, conservative religious leaders have gotten more influential in the region in recent years. The conservatives are now highlighting the abuses committed by the Syrian regime and calls on people to support them instead.
Had to close office
Although the conflict in Syria has not yet had an effect on everyday life in Lebanon to any greater extent, however most people are expecting the unrest to return. The Lebanese Council to Resist Violence against Women (LECORVAW) in Tripoli is working to support abused women and has also, together with other organizations, been assisting Syrian women, who fled to Lebanon, with counseling and medical care. LECORVAW has had to close its office several times during the latest outbursts of violence. The office is located near an area where there have been bombings and fights between snipers.
- People are worried that an armed conflict is going to flare up again. If the politicians and leaders in Lebanon do not take strong action to prevent these types of conflicts, we fear the worst will happen, says Michel Daia from LECORVAW.
According to Michel Daia, all Lebanese in northern Lebanon are affected by the growing tensions, but the young are particularly vulnerable. It’s harder for them to find jobs and they are forced to relocate to other areas or countries.
Protests against violence
LECORVAW along with several other organizations, have been demonstrating against armed conflicts.
- There are people who are trying to fight the cycle of violence, for example by pulling together peace demonstrations, saying: “We do not want your conflict, we want peace.” Actions like that give hope, says Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström.
Her last day in office Margot Wallström (middle in flowery blouse) visited the Swedish women's right and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. The crossed armes is the symbol for the UN campaign Stop rape now! Photo: Sara Lüdtke/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.
After two years as the first ever UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström on May 31st left her office. We met up with her on her last day, to talk about the achievements made and the many things still left to be done.
- Somehow it feels like this mission starts and ends with Congo, Margot Wallström says.
She is sitting in her homecountry of Sweden, trying to prepare for her new life as a non-UN worker. But her mind is filled with gruesome images sent to her as late as the day before.
- It was a lot due to the terrible situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with mass rapes and increasing sexual violence, that this office and its mandate came into place. And now, again, we recieve these horrifying photos of massacres that have taken place in Eastern DRC; photos of dead women whom I believe also had been raped. I am really worried that this will escalate into a genocide. They are hacking each other to death with machetes now, just like in Rwanda. The international community has to react, and not just with words, but physically go there and put pressure on the government.
The DRC has gotten the not so flattering nickname ”the rape capital of the world”, and crimes of sexual violence has continued in the country also during ceasefires. But Margot Wallström points out that there have been achievements made as well.
- We have managed to get military courts in the DRC to try cases of sexual violence. There have been 250 prosecutions so far. But I would really like the Congolese government to do a lot more. Like in the cases of the massacres taking place right now, where are the governmental officials? Noone seems to be putting any demands on them.
Breakthrough with Resolution 1960
Born: 28 September 1954, in Kåge in northern Sweden.
Family: Married, two children.
Career in short: Active in the Swedish Social Democratic Party 1977-1988. Minister of cultural affairs 1994-1996 and Minister of health and social affairs 1996-1998. 1999-2004 Member of the European Commission, in charge of issues regarding the environment and sustainability. 2004 appointed first Vice President of the European Commission, a position she held until 2010, when she became the first UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
On future plans: – I have accepted to become Chairman of the board at Lund’s University in Sweden. Otherwise I’m not sure. I will spend some time at home now to figure out what I want to do next.
The widespread problem of impunity for crimes of sexual violence and rape has been one of the main issues on Margot Wallström’s agenda as Special Representative. And one of the major breakthroughs during her period in office was the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1960 in 2010, that requests the provision of detailed information on suspected perpetrators of sexual violence during armed conflict..
-When I started out I remember talking to a colleague at UNICEF about how we would be able to define success. You know, there are no easy ways to define and quantify objectives like these. She said that it would be a huge success if we were to get the UN Security Council to state that they are prepared to use the same methods to stop these types of crimes, as when it comes to crimes of violence against children. And with Resolution 1960 we actually got there, she says.
With the support of UNSCR 1960 the Special Representative can produce a ”name and shame” list in her annual report. This means putting names and faces to the warlords and armed groups suspected of crimes of sexual violence in conflict. Resolution 1960 also gives the Security Council the option to exercise sanctions against groups or nations in order to put a stop to ongoing crimes of this nature. In short it underlined sexual violence as an important part of the Security Council’s agenda.
- Now they make statements about these issues and incorporate them when writing new mandates. Of course, now and then they do still forget about them – as recently, regarding Syria. I called Kofi Annan up personally and told him that I thought it strange that they had put together a peace mission group without including any gender experts. And he agreed right away, so now we have sent one, who will be part of his team of UN observers, Margot Wallström says.
Still seen as “women stuff”
But it is far from that easy all the time, to get the people (mostly men) in power to recognize the sincerity of what her office is working with.
- It is not uncontroversial, I mean there are countries that doesn’t like these kind of special mandates. Pakistan, India and China, for example, constantly try to push back these issues. For them it’s like: ”is this really relevant for the Security Council? We are working with peace and security here, this women stuff, should we concern ourselves with that?”.
Stories of violence
But they should, and they have to, because the severe situation for women all over the world is not changing at any high speed. Margot Wallström’s last trip when in office, was to Colombia, a country that most people normally don’t associate with conflict-related sexual violence. But conflict situations aren’t limited to what you regularly perceive as war.
- In Colombia women are being subjected to these crimes by all armed groups within the country. The sexual violence is present everywhere, from the mass rapes conducted by the FARC guerilla, to the everyday threats and violence.
- We went to an area where a lot of IDPs (internally displaced persons) were living and it turned into a kind of reception. They placed us in a local store and I sat there with two garden chairs and a long cue of women lining up to tell me their stories: ”My husband is trying to kill me, he chokes me every night”, ”he has knocked my teeth out”, ”I lock the door to my bedroom every night at six, because he always comes home ragingly drunk”.
Hope in spite of the pain
Of course this situation isn’t unique for Colombia. Everywhere Margot Wallström has travelled during these two years, she has seen the same patterns of women being held back, beaten and tortured. And it is not always an easy task to listen to all these painful testimonials.
- Sometimes we almost censor our own reports, because there are such appalling atrocities taking place that you feel like people just won’t believe they are true. I have gotten really depressed and walked with a heavy heart, for sure. But at the same time these women carry on, they pick up their burdens and continue working for human rights. There is so much inspiration and hope in that.
Footnote: The mandate of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has been prolonged indefinitely. Margot Wallström’s successor has not yet been announced.
Sexual violence and rape during conflict is a crime that hugely goes unpunished. To draw attention to this fact, the Women Under Siege project is trying a new approach. On its web site every single case of sexual abuse that is being reported in the ongoing conflict in Syria, is being mapped.
- Our mission is to show the world that each woman raped is a person who has been illegally brutalized against her will, that she is part of a family and a community that may now be shredded. We aim to show that this woman, wherever she is, matters, Lauren Wolfe and Catherine M. Mullaly from Women Under Siege write on the site.
Reporting in real-time
The Women Under Siege web site describes eight armed conflicts, from the Holo-caust to the war that is still going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a focus on how sexual violence has been used as a way of warfare. The site also has a collection of women’s stories, testimonies of the atrocities they have been subjected to. But the project doesn’t rest there. To highlight that these are not just crimes committed in the past, Women Under Siege are trying a new way of showing that conflict-related sexual abuse is taking place right now – in Syria.
- We are gathering reports of rape, sexual assault, and groping—as well as the consequences of sexualized violence, including mental health issues and pregnancy. By utilizing Ushahidi crowdsourcing technology, which allows survivors, witnesses, and first-responders to report via email, Twitter (#RapeinSyria), or directly to the site, we are able to get these stories to you in real time. A map points to where the attack happened, while we give deeper context when you click on the report, Lauren Wolfe and Catherine M. Mullaly explains.
Stories from refugees
There are many stories of extremely cruel acts of rape and sexual violence being reported by refugees who have fled from Syria. It has been difficult to get reports from within the country since journalists have been stopped when trying to go to the areas involved in the conflict.
If you want to follow what has already been reported, or if you have an incident of sexual violence to report, visit the Syria crowdmap.
Find out more about the project at The cartography of suffering: Women Under Siege maps sexualized violence in Syria and about sexual violence during armed conflicts at Women and war.
The Women Under Siege project is an initiative from the Women’s Media Center.