Women are pawns in the Syrian war.
That's the conclusion of the United Nations' Human Rights Council, which just released a new report on the horrific sexual violence facing the people of Syria.
It documents an astounding array of atrocities. And it highlights the way Syrian government forces, under the control of Bashar al-Assad, have systematically used rape and sexual violence as a tool to victimize and humiliate its perceived enemies.
The stories in the report, written after interviews with more than 450 people, document a terrifying and systematic pattern of sexual abuse by the government during house raids, at checkpoints and in detention centers.
Rape and sexual humiliation weren't a bug of the system — they were a feature, designed to break combatants and destroy the structures of family life.
The report documents the way rape was deployed during government raids on the homes of people it suspected to be in the opposition.
As one woman explained: “My home was invaded ... One security officer told me to go to my room and he followed me in. He began insulting me and telling me he would 'do me' and that I would never 'be clean again.' I screamed, but no one came.”
In some instances, women and girls recounted being raped outside or forced to walk naked in the streets in front of tanks. One woman told interviewers that she'd been raped in front of her brother. Another woman said she'd been raped in front of her husband and three young children. Some women who resisted were killed, or were forced to watch their relatives die.
In other cases, women and girls were taken to detention centers as a way to pressure their male relatives to surrender.
At government checkpoints, particularly in opposition-held areas — a near-daily reality in Syria, where most roads are controlled by someone — women and girls suffered similar humiliations. Sometimes women were separated from their groups and raped. One woman recalled being pulled off a bus and taken to a house with eight other women, who were all naked and injured.
Even elderly women were not safe. Many were subject to “intimate searches.” One woman recalled being taken to a basement and beaten by a militia member, who also touched her breasts and genitals. Another said she had “an object inserted in her genitals.”
The worst abuse, however, was reserved for the girls and women in detention. As the report explains, “thousands of women and girls were also apprehended, including female lawyers, journalists and activists expressing anti-Government sentiments. Large numbers of female relatives of men perceived to be opposition supporters, or suspected of belonging to armed groups, were also arbitrarily detained.”
For those girls and women — some as young as 9 years old — there was a parade of horrors: Pregnant women were raped. At least one interviewee miscarried as a result.
On arrival, women were sometimes stripped naked in groups and forced to squat in front of an audience as a male officer inserted his fingers into their genitals. In detention, many women reported rape. Some reported electrocution of their genitals and breasts. Others said they had been gang-raped.
All reported horrific conditions and frequent beatings. According to the report, one detainee said that at one point, the fact that she was covered in blood, urine and lice prevented officers from raping her.
“The officers of the Syrian forces were not only aware of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls,” the report found. “They ordered it or were themselves the perpetrators.”
In detention centers, men suffered too. According to the report, several reported that they had been raped in front of other detainees. Some said that pipes or rods had been used, “seemingly for amusement.” Others reported that male relatives were forced to have intercourse with one another.
“Survivors of sexual violence and defectors of the Syrian army linked rapes of women and girls during house raids to the arrest of men, with the rapes considered as punishment for rebellion and a way to deter opposition.” This kind of assault eased up after 2015 as the government's forces shifted to air raids.
These were not isolated incidents, but rather reported countrywide, in Daraa, Homs, Damascus and Latakia.
There are accounts of sexual violence against women from armed groups too. But the report finds that that was sporadic, or at least not part of an organized campaign.
There's one more aspect from the report worth noting: the way these crimes have affected their victims. The report offers a sobering assessment of what it's like to live with the burden of being victimized.
There are reports of “guilt” and “depression.” Women and girls say they feel they've “dishonored their families” and that it's “worse for a girl to be raped than to be killed.” Some families disown or blame the women for the crimes perpetrated against them.
Some men say they're impotent now. They feel that they've “lost their masculinity” and that they can't confide in relatives because they're too ashamed.
“A number of women and girls committed suicide after having been raped,” the report finds. “Fear of sexual violence ... is a driving force for families to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.”