Skip to main content

Rape is shredding Syria's social fabric

By Lauren Wolfe, Special to CNN
updated 6:02 PM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
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
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT