- By Marya Hannun<p> Marya Hannun is a researcher at Foreign Policy. </p>
Rape has played a devastating role in Syria’s two-year-long civil war, but data about how prevalent the practice is in the murky conflict have been hard to come by. In one of the most ambitious efforts yet to nail down statistics, a study released Wednesday indicates that Syrian government forces have committed most acts of sexual violence.
Women Under Siege, along with Columbia University epidemiologists, the Syrian-American Medical Society, and Syrian activists and journalists, has spent the past year documenting and mapping incidences of sexual violence in the war-ravaged country. And while the group acknowledges that the data– derived largely from media and human rights reports — is incomplete and unverified, the numbers do paint an interesting picture of who is behind acts of sexual violence in the country, and how often they’re occurring.
One of the report’s most compelling findings is just how many of the cases of sexual violence on record have allegedly been committed by government forces:
According to the study, government forces have carried out 56 percent of sexual attacks against women. But if you include pro-regime shabiha (plain-clothed militia) perpetrators, the number is closer to 80 percent. When it comes to men (who were the victims in 20 percent of the cases tracked by Women Under Siege), the figures are even more staggering. 90 percent of the reported sexualized violence against men was committed by government forces, possibly due to the fact that these tend to occur in detention facilities. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, has only carried out 1 percent of the documented sexual attacks.
FP caught up with Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe to delve deeper into the story behind these figures. Here’s what she had to say:
Our number of reports has nearly doubled since we last put out our stats in July, yet the stats have remained remarkably consistent. Our lead Columbia epidemiologist thinks that indicates we are potentially on the right track. But again, the key caution is always that we are only getting a portion of what’s potentially out there.
Wolfe acknowledges that rape is being committed on all sides of the conflict, but stresses the importance of looking at “why so much of the information coming out of Syria indicates that the majority is being enacted by government perpetrators.” According to Wolfe, there are a number of explanations for this finding.
While the Syrian opposition has been diligently documenting atrocities and reporting these to international actors, the Syrian government has restricted journalists’ access to information on sexual violence. “Much of the rape appears to be occurring in government detention centers, at checkpoints, and during army raids on towns,” she told FP. “Whatever less structured [rape] carried out by opposition forces may be underreported.”
There’s another potential explanation, Wolfe adds: “It is entirely possible that government forces are actually carrying out the majority of the sexualized violence.” Past studies of sexual violence in conflict show that state forces are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence — a pattern that might just be recurring in Syria.