Syrian-American tells UN of cultural reasons why rape in Syria may be underreported
Safa Sankari, a member of our Syria team, spoke at the UN on July 18 as part of a presentation of our first findings of a data analysis of our crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria. Sankari, who is Syrian-American, is the co-founder and president of the Syrian American Medical Society’s Michigan Chapter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps in the humanitarian and medical needs of Syrians. WMC’s Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe also spoke. You can read her testimony here.
Good afternoon. I would like to thank you for this opportunity to humbly allow me to give the Syrian women a voice in the ongoing conflict. Since the uprising began in March 2011, the security situation in Syria has been rapidly deteriorating, and women, who are usually the most vulnerable in any conflict, no longer feel safe in their own homes. Sexualized violence is becoming more prevalent in Syria, and the women have nowhere to turn for help.
I would like to share with you a story of “Selma” from Karm al-Zaitoun, Homs. She was independently interviewed [by Human Rights Watch] about an attack that occurred at her neighbor’s home in March 2012. She states:
“I saw the security forces and the shabiha and I went into the house [and hid] ... My neighbor has girls. I heard her say to them, ‘Don’t let out a noise.’ Our apartments are wall-to-wall ... They [the shabiha] came to our building … The door to my house was open still [as I left it when I was packing]. From my hiding place I could hear that someone came in and said ‘This one is empty, there is no one here’… They knocked on my neighbor’s door … One of them said, ‘Open or we will shoot.’ She did not open the door and they shot at it … When they went in one said, ‘Why are you not opening the door?’ She was saying, ‘Oh God, God forbid, don’t come close to me.’ She said, ‘I will kiss your feet but don’t come near us’…
“The girls were protesting. I could hear them saying not to grab the mother and she was just saying, ‘Don’t touch my daughters.’ I could hear one girl fighting with one of them. He was saying, ‘Oh, you are going to scratch me too?’ She pushed him and he shot her in the head. She was the oldest. 20 years old … They grabbed the youngest. She was 12. You could hear her say, ‘Don’t take my clothes off.’ The mother said, ‘This girl is 12.’ The youngest, I saw her [later], her sweater was torn, all the way down the front. They raped her and they raped the two others … The other girls were 16 and 18 … I waited, hiding after they left. I didn’t move for one hour or so until the thuwar (revolutionaries) came ...
“The girls had closed the door to their house and were crying … I knocked on their door and said, ‘I am your neighbor let me in.’ The scene on the inside was unreal. The 12 year old was lying on the ground, blood to her knees. I told them to get up, that this happened against their will. More than one person had raped the 12 year old. I heard them from my hiding place, saying, ‘Come on, enough, my turn.’ She was torn the length of a forefinger. I will never go back there. It comes to me. I see it in my dreams and I just cry.”
Selma’s story is not an isolated one. As Lauren [Wolfe] has shared with you, there are many other reported stories of rape and sexualized violence. However, I can assure you, the number of stories we are hearing about are grossly underreported. The reason for this is twofold.
First, the Syrian regime’s tactic has always been one of instilling fear into its people. When they rape a woman, they often threaten her that if she says anything to anyone, not only will she pay a price, but her family will as well. I know this firsthand from a young, distant female relative of mine in Syria. She was kidnapped from in front of her home in broad daylight. She was gone for 3-4 days and was returned to her family for a ransom of money. Her family refuses to tell us anything about the details of her ordeal, and not even who the perpetrators were. We can only imagine what may have happened to her, and what the perpetrators may have threatened her and her family with if they spoke to anyone of what happened.
The second reason why rape and sexualized violence is underreported is the culture of Syrian society. Women are not encouraged to speak up for fear of being shunned in their communities. It is a cultural aspect that is often mistakenly tied to religion—that a women’s virginity is tied to her family’s honor. For fear of bringing shame to her family or even being killed herself, women do not feel safe speaking about the issue. Also tied to this cultural issue is the fear of a rape victim to never be able to get married if she has lost her virginity in this manner. The rape victim, who already has gone through extreme mental and physical trauma, now faces being rejected by men and living as an outcast in society.
The other shocking aspect of the reports of rape the crowdmap website and media outlets are receiving is the fact that the rape is being coupled with other types of physical torture. As a Human Rights Watch report issued on June 15 about Nour, who was independently interviewed, she states she has suffered amnesia subsequent to being detained in Damascus. She cannot recall her name, age, or whether or not she had family. She is quoted as saying:
“The earliest thing I remember is being stopped at a checkpoint in Homs,” said Nour. “I thought I was going to be detained but the soldiers there took me to an apartment where there were other girls … I was there for two or three days and then they took me to Damascus to the Palestine Branch. They held me there for two-and-a-half to three months. There were three other women there … They had a schedule. They would take turns with us. More than one man would rape you. It wasn’t every day, but it was regular.”
Nour continues to say, “There were three other women in the cell when I arrived ... Throughout our time in that cell, the four of us there were permanently in one of four positions: They tied our handcuffed hands above our heads onto a chain coming out of the ceiling and chained our feet together with our feet flat on the floor. They tied us face up to a metal bed which just had two planks of wood on it – we were in an X position so our wrists and ankles were attached to the four corners of the bed frame. They put our entire hunched body into the hole of a big tire with our back bent forward. They tied us to a metal chair with no bottom or back to which they sometimes attached electrodes to electrocute us.
“With every new shift of the guards, they would switch our positions. We slept in those positions. They electrocuted us quite often ... Each time my body and particularly my jaw and teeth would clench up for a long time – it was extremely painful ...
“They did other things to us too ... [They] raped us while we were on the bed ... [one of them] used to force the soldiers who were reluctant, saying things like “I have a sister,” to rape us. In my case they raped me about four or five times ... Twice, more than one man raped me one after the other. I cannot remember how many it was each time.”
Stories like Nour’s and Selma’s are just the tip of the iceberg. In the aftermath of the conflict, we are sure to hear many more women like these. Rape is a vicious crime that does not just affect the woman, but affects an entire community. Women, who in most cases are the most vulnerable, yet at the same time, the backbones of societies are being humiliated and devalued. The longer the international community remains silent, the worse the aftermath will be.
We all remember the Bosnian conflict, and generations today look back and wonder, Why didn’t the international community intervene earlier to prevent the mass rapes and sexualized violence that took place there? Let us not allow another humanitarian disaster to happen on our clocks.
Thank you for listening.
More articles by Category: Girls, International, Violence against women
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