Is Rape a Weapon of War or Instrument of Terror?

Leslie Carol Botha: Rape – sexual violence is a weapon of war, an instrument of terror and a crime against women and children.

Rape in Syria: a weapon of war or instrument of terror?

The Conversation

Sara Meger
Researcher on Gender and International Relations at University of Melbourne

A Syrian woman in Turkey prays for those left behind. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

In Syria, rape is being used by armed groups as a means to an end. In this context, reports have emerged detailing the use of sexual violence by Syrian armed forces and paramilitaries loyal to Assad.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting sexual violence used by government agents in detention centres. Men, women and boys have reported rape, penetration with foreign objects, groping, forced nudity, and genital trauma while in the custody of the state.

The New York-based Women Under Siege, an affiliate of Gloria Steinem’s Media Center, has also began collecting reports from Syria on sexualised attacks. They currently have 81 stories of sexual assault reported over the past 18 months, mostly in home raids and residential sweeps. In a report of their findings, Women Under Siege indicate that 90% of women victims experienced rape and 42% experienced gang rape.

Women Under Siege describe these attacks as a widespread and systematic tool of war. The characterisation of sexual violence in the Syrian uprising by these organisations and by the handful of media reports focus on the various forms reported – from seemingly “opportunistic” attacks through to gang rape and sexual torture. Each type is conflated under the banner of “rape as a weapon of war.”

In such a conflict, it is difficult to determine the true extent to which rape and other forms of sexual violence are being intentionally used. If we take the reports as representative of a wider phenomenon, however, the “weapon of war” label (and the comparisons it draws with the conflicts of Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) is not entirely accurate.

In a lot of what we read on sexual violence in war, most attention is focused on forms of sexual violence. Little distinction is made between the perpetrators and between the types of victims.

Reports tend to focus on the numbers of perpetrators per victim, the physical extent of the abuse suffered, and the social stigma that victims of sexual violence experience as a result of their abuse. This has again been the case with reports of sexual violence coming out of Syria.

However, from the cases traced by Women Under Siege and by Human Rights Watch in Syria, it is possible to see a pattern to sexual violence based on the function it serves. Most of the reported incidents were perpetrated by the Syrian armed forces and its allies, including the Shabiha militia.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.