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

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…

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.

The attacks aim to instill fear and terror in not just the immediate victims of sexual violence, but the wider community connected with the victim. The effect on the audience, in this case, is at least as important as, if not more important than, the effect on the victim.

This function of sexual violence in Syria shows how rape can be used as an instrument of terror. Most of the cases are coming out of regions that have a strong rebel support base, such as Homs and Aleppo.

Syrian forces performing house to house raids in Aleppo. EPA/SANA
Sexual violence is perpetrated during home and community raids, at checkpoints and in detention. In an interview with ABC Radio National, Human Rights Watch Middle East deputy director Nadim Houry pointed to the worrying pattern of sexual abuse committed against mostly male detainees that included rape and electroshock and beatings to the genitalia.

These forms of sexual violence mirror those used by other repressive regimes against political opposition, such as Peru during the 1980-2000 civil war and Pakistan during the 1971 secession of Bangladesh. In each of these conflicts, sexual violence was typically employed by state forces and its allies against civilians sympathetic to insurgents.

Sexual abuse is used to terrorise the population, to deter would-be supporters, and to instill fear in government opponents. Sexual violence is particularly effective because of the social effects it has on communities.

Sexual violence as an instrument of terror is a distinct function in civil conflicts. An over-reliance on the blanket term “rape as a weapon of war” reinforces the idea that war, and the violence therein, is senseless and chaotic. But as arbitrary as sexual violence in conflict may seem, the patterns of its use reflect the underlying objectives of the groups involved. In civil wars, groups fighting for governance are much less likely to use sexual violence than are government forces trying to retain their grip on power.

Rather than overstate the significance of the sexual nature of this abuse, our focus should be on the function it serves. By looking to the underlying objective sexual violence serves, we can begin to formulate more effective responses. An account of sexual violence that considers the interests of the perpetrators will help us come up with better means to prevent and punish future perpetration.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde


    War is a male business - men with guns, a breakdown of law, and the exercise of brutal power. This is what it is - what it always has been. What is new is that this mass criminal behaviour and abuse is being documented and reported.

    From the mass rapes of the Soviet sweep into Germany in the latter stages of WW2, the Americans in Vietnam and Korea through to the incredible horror being unleashed in the Congo, rape has always been a tool of war - at least a bounty - the right of the victor - through to a tool for mass terror and suppression.

    There's nothing special about Syria.

    This is why I've always had a problem with the notion of "war crimes" - war itself is the crime. It's a bit like trying to impose a set of ethics on murder or bank robbery - an acceptable way of doing evil.

    We start by taking away the guns.

    1. Alan W


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I was with you right up until your last sentence.

      An armed woman is much closer to being a match, physically, for an armed man than is an unarmed woman against an unarmed man.

      The problem here is the human nature that seems to come out when the normal rules of society are abolished. The strong take what they want. If anything guns serve to even out the weak/strong mix to some degree. Not entirely of course, but they help.

    2. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Alan W

      OK Alan I take your point - let's disarm the men and get the women some decent artillery. Time to gender up our aid programs?

      The women being raped are not combatants - they are civilians - mothers, sisters and daughters. They should not be living in fear and terror and this terror does not come from men - it comes from men with guns who are - at least at that point in time - in control and outside the law. It is a crime of power and the victims are powerless.

      The effects of rape in an Islamic…

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    3. Alan W


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Again, I agree with everything you have said apart from:
      1. the straw man you lead off with in your above comment and
      2. the undertone in your writing that seems to hang the blame for all of this on guns. This sort of thing has been happening at least since written records of warfare have been kept, and very probably ever since humans have been warring with each other. It doesn’t really matter if the invading army has firearms, spears, swords or knives if you’re unable to fight back.
      The issue is the brutal nature of the actions, not whatever tools are being used at the time.
      While everyone has their pet issue what is happening in Syria is horrific enough without trying to score ideological points by attaching your favourite cause to it.

    4. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Alan W

      Alan that's not a straw man - that's a joke.

      As to the role of guns, RPG's tanks missiles and the like that's how power is exercised and established when law breaks down.

      Places like the Congo are awash with the legacy of the arms trade accumulated over decades... a growth market. In selling weapons to places like this the industry tools up both regime and rebels - and stuck in the middle are folks without guns.

      This is an ugly industry and the consequences are obvious.

  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Finally! The rape card is played - the inevitable point in every conflict where tame academics portray the side we are opposed to as using rape as a weapon of war. Holding back for so long (excuse the double entendre) is something of a record.
    The perfect deployment of the rape gambit was surely Jessica Lynch. Admittedly it might have helped if she hadn't had amnesia for the whole incident, or even if some agreement as to the exact orifices offended against could have been reached, but this…

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  3. Darragh Murray

    Self employed

    Interesting article. Though I think it's completely wrong to even think of sexual violence as a legitimate 'weapon of war'.

    It's clear as day it's an instrument of terror. I don't have the Statute or Rome or the Geneva convention of human rights to hand, but surely these are just war crimes and nothing more? (not to downplay the significance, but it's abhorrent to me to even consider these as weapons of war.

    "In civil wars, groups fighting for governance are much less likely to use sexual violence than are government forces trying to retain their grip on power."

    Also, while I know this is a blog post, this statement here - is there evidence of this? On what basis do you make this claim? Why is this the case? You don't seem to explain this.

    1. Sara Meger

      Researcher on Gender and International Relations at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Darragh Murray

      The point of this article is that there are different motivations and objectives behind the use of sexual violence in conflict and to treat all of them as the same makes it very difficult to formulate effective policy and program responses. Rather than trying to classify the types of sexual violence in terms of the forms used, I am arguing that it is more useful to consider the underlying motivation for its use.

      We can't try to solve the problem of sexual violence in war as an isolated event…

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    2. Darragh Murray

      Self employed

      In reply to Sara Meger

      Thanks for replying Sara - I'll have read through. Another throwaway question though - I was wondering, in your research, are there any cultural trends regarding instances of sexual violence in warfare? Or even development trends (referring to say a state's 'level of development' and how common instances of sexual violence are in states embroiled in conflict vs their level of state development - I hope I framed that correctly).

    3. Sara Meger

      Researcher on Gender and International Relations at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Darragh Murray


      There have been a couple of attempts to discern what characteristics of armed groups may determine their predisposition to use sexual violence, most notably the work of Elizabeth Jean Wood. She found that there is no clear cultural link, given that within a particular civil war one group may be more likely to use sexual violence than the other (or others). Instead, the variable that was most reliable, she found, was the strength of the internal hierarchy of the armed group - the ability…

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    4. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Sara Meger


      I have a degree in History, and have retained a love for the subject post-university, so have continued to read and learn. One of my main interests has been gender and sexuality, as well as law and economics. Following your suggestion to another poster above, I went away and read a few of your articles, and several of the sources you use, and further reading and fact-checking.

      You say

      "The point of this article is that there are different motivations and objectives behind the use of…

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  4. lavinia kay moore

    child and family counsellor

    I do not separate the impact of weapons of war per se from instruments of terror. War always involves aggression and intimidation of the "other". "Getting the job done"- i.e. winning- is often achieved by "doing what it takes".
    In Bosnia in addition to murdering the adult males on masse, their women were raped on masse. To cleanse Bosnia from Muslims by forcing the women to breed Serbian children. At least that seems to have been the idea.
    Weapons such as guns and bombs are always augmented by…

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    1. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to KO

      There's actually some rather nice science work on the intergenerational transmission of trauma which is worth a look in this regard, a lot of it looking at holocaust survivors and their children but also of the impact of a violent childhood and rape:

      Have a scholarly google at "Intergenerational transmission of trauma". This stuff doesn't just go away with time.

    2. Catherine Mill

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Exactly. This trauma creation using sexual- creative energy is a well known tactic used and perfected by the Jesuits. Think Hammer of the Witch from hundreds of years ago and it is all there- the manual for torture- fragmenting the soul and robbing the essence of the human being- a child having the most energy, a wombman- the creator- well plenty of energy to steal from her.
      It is well know that most victims of rape never become whole/holy again. This conditioning that rape is taking possession of the other males possession is barbaric.
      The placing of this rape and plunder in the media in fact feeds the gremlins because most people re- act e-motionally and feed it their energy too.

  5. Caitlin Whiteman

    logged in via Facebook

    'the blanket term “rape as a weapon of war” reinforces the idea that war, and the violence therein, is senseless and chaotic.'

    As someone with an IR degree and good reading comprehension I'm having a lot of trouble seeing where/how this term does anything of the sort. To me it implies just the opposite - *use* as a weapon implies deliberateness, not chaos - the phrase suggests that rape as we see in war is a deliberate act with political purposes. Which seems to be the very thing being argued...

    & all weapons of war cause death, injury and destruction and can therefore cause terror (either with explicit intent to do so for political/strategic purposes e.g. Dresden, or as an""unintended"" but foreseen consequence e.g. aerial bombing in Afghanistan).

  6. Chris H


    There also seems to be an element of genocide to using rape as a tool of war, not isolated to more modern conflicts. Consider the rates of rape of Aboriginal Australian women by colonists.

    1. Catherine Mill

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris H

      Yes, it was used in Eire, USA, Canada, Australia- all part of the genocide.
      Patriarachy has always despised women- womb envy, creators etc. With all religions deeming women mere breeders in their sacred texts, what can we expect?

  7. Eddy Schmid


    Oh Dear, Here weo go again, why is it, claims such as these being made in this article, are ALWAYS aimed at the groups being targeted for destruction and undermining, and in every case I've heard of since Bosnia and Gulf war lite 1, all such cases were FALSE.
    The most disgusting one being the babies heads being bashed against the wall in Kuwait allegedly by Saddam's troops. Which, like all the others, turned out to be false, BUT, the media reporting that claim never ever retracted their claim…

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    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Eddy Schmid

      Now now, Mr Schmid. It is not sucking up to the Americans if you really giving it to the patriarchy.

      Alright, it looks like sucking up to the Americans, but that just shows how misleading appearances can be.

      In reality academics who peddle this kind of propaganda are not necessarily bad people, just people with the good sense not to look to deeply. The competition for academic preferment is so intense these days that you simply have to do whatever you need to do to secure your career. Things like mortgages and job security trump academic ethics any day.

      The best we can hope is that when they make it do emeritus professor they may finally feel courageous enough to say something insightful. Sometimes they do, but it can be a long wait

  8. R. Ambrose Raven


    Surely a classic example of not seeing the wood for the trees?

    Unless Sara is seeking to argue that war should be advanced by peaceful means, two rather more sensible issues for the Syrian people (I suppose I should apologise for including men and boys, but I'm not going to) are peace and bread.

    Western nations are quite brazen about their agenda of "regime change". NBC News: "But the West has ruled out military intervention of the type that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year…

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