At the height of the Syrian war, I sat across from a woman in her 20s at a shelter in Beirut. She was a Syrian from Latakia and over the next hour, she told me her story of being trafficked into Lebanon and forced into sexual slavery.
Along with 74 other Syrian women imprisoned as part of the largest sex-trafficking ring ever uncovered in Lebanon, she had endured beatings with cables and electric batons and been forced to have sex 10 times a day on a regular basis.
The women in the ring had skin ailments because they were kept inside a decrepit house in Maameltein, a suburb in the city of Jounieh, for months or years at a time. They didn’t see any sunlight because their windows were painted black, lest a passer-by see inside. They were only allowed out for abortions or trips to a collaborating doctor.
For nearly nine years of war, Syrian women have borne the brunt of the conflict. They have endured abuses amounting to crimes against humanity, had to be the sole breadwinners for refugee families fleeing from war to destitution and – with the war close to an end – they will be left to pick up the pieces.
I was reminded of the story of the women who survived the abuses and torture of the sex-trafficking network after reading a report published this week on the violence that women in Syria have suffered since the uprising there began in March 2011. The report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) was released to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Monday.
Based on SNHR’s data (which is more conservative than others covering Syria due to their particularly stringent data-gathering protocols), more than 28,000 women have been killed in the war, out of 225,000 people whose deaths have been documented by name. The number of children killed is 29,000, which means women and children make up around a quarter of wartime deaths in Syria, even though so few of them are fighters.
Most of these women – 84 per cent – were killed by forces loyal to the regime of Bashar Al Assad. This means that women, as civilians, suffered due to the government’s brutality and indiscriminate bombing of cities, hospitals, neighbourhoods and civilian centres.
More than 10,000 women have been arbitrarily detained in the course of the conflict and 8,400 remain in the dungeons of the Assad regime or rebel and extremist groups, where they almost certainly endured torture, or worse. Women bravely campaigned for human rights and stood in the face of oppression, even if it meant paying prices too great to bear. Razan Zaitouneh and Samira Al Khalil, two giants of the Syrian revolution with a long history of campaigning for civil rights under totalitarianism, were disappeared in December 2013 by the rebel group Jaysh Al Islam in the city of Douma near Damascus.
Their fate remains unknown. Neither radical Islamists nor the Assads’ totalitarian dictatorship were capable of hearing them speak truth to power.
Women also bore the lion's share of the misogynistic terrorism of ISIS. In addition to being forced into isolation and relegated to second-class humans who exist solely for the fulfilment of their fighters' sexual and domestic proclivities, they were trafficked by the thousands from across the border in Iraq, with thousands of Yazidi women and girls sold into sexual slavery both at home and in Syria.
A UN report last year found that rape was widely used as a weapon of war against women and girls as well as men in the war, primarily by the Assad regime and its allied militias. The report by the UN Commission of Inquiry said this campaign of sexual violence constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Worldwide, sexual violence against women and girls is more widespread than against men and boys during any armed conflict. Women are often primary targets for invading forces. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, an estimated 20,000 women were raped during the eight-year Balkans war in the 1990s. And in Myanmar, the military has used systematic rape and sexual violence to intimidate the Rohingya for years.
In Syria, while those who stayed had to contend with tyranny and war, those who fled the violence also suffered. All lost sons, brothers, fathers, husbands. As towns and cities emptied of young men who were conscripted or killed, women shouldered ever greater responsibility. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, women now head 145,000 refugee households – more than a quarter of the 500,000 families who fled the war. Most of them must support their families after enduring the war’s horrors, and are often displaced more than once before seeking a haven across the border, reducing them to destitution.
And even once they have fled war, there is little respite. They face discrimination like other refugees, often blamed for economic woes that have little to do with them. I have interviewed many over the years, including child brides, who suffered domestic violence at the hands of husbands frustrated by their own inability to provide for their families amid the protracted trauma of deprivation in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan.
Moreover, women have had to contend with societal norms that deprive them of their rights or the opportunity for support. Many of those who escape detention are shunned by segments of their communities, due to suspicions that they have been sexually assaulted and therefore have had their honour besmirched.
And yet, amid all this suffering, Syrian women have emerged as paragons of resilience, working hard to support their families, assuming greater and more prominent roles in their communities and leading civil society movements and grassroots organisations that are helping Syrians rebuild, organise to demand their rights and better their communities.
After all the violence they have had to endure, perhaps the silver lining is that Syria’s women will be there to pick up what has been smashed to pieces.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent, now in Canada