As the brutal chemical bombings in Syria dominate the news headlines, the general consensus amongst the media seems to be one of horror. As it should be. The deliberate brutalisation of others should be and always should be, condemned.
Though, as the war rages on in Syria and in many other parts of our planet, there is a necessity to ensure that all forms of brutality towards all civilians in war zones are recognized and condemned, not just those with geo political interests.
As I have moved around the sidelines of various conflicts raging through the world today, with my foundation Project Monma, which aims to investigate violence and discrimination against women and girls, my work has brought me to the outskirts of a number of warzones. I have noticed that the brutalities facing women and girls in war, are never given the attention, or the due horror, that they deserve.
I have met with women and girls inside refugee tents, in abandoned buildings where they have taken refuge and civilian women living on the sidelines of conflict zones.
Their stories of violence and atrocity have come in multiple forms. They include rape, sexual harassment and intimidation. They involve struggling to survive, forced prostitution and suffering. And the actors perpetrating the violence come in multiple forms too. They are soldiers, who could come from either side of the conflict, they are refugee men perpetrating violence against refugee women, they are peacekeepers and security forces who are supposed to be there to protect and they are ordinary civilian men, taking advantage of the vulnerability of women escaping war.
What is certain is that women and girls face tremendous levels of insecurity during times of war.
On my last two trips to Northern Iraq I met with a number of Yezidi women. I met them in small makeshift refugee camps and in semi constructed homes around Erbil. They told their stories quietly. They recounted running for their lives and the horror of knowing that their girls were under ISIS captivity. That their girls were being raped and sold in markets, as slaves.
They also described being forced to endure sexual harassment from local Iraqi Kurdish men while taking shelter in Erbil. One group of women explained when they first arrived to Erbil, groups of drunk local men would come by the abandoned building they were living in to harass them. It was a terrorizing experience, they explained. Another group of Yezidi women said they feared to come out of their small makeshift home on the outskirts of Erbil, because the harassment from the local men on the construction site across the street, was too unbearable.
In an Internally Displaced Persons camp just outside of Erbil, I met with a number of Iraqi women who had fled Mosul after ISIS took the city. One young woman said that sexual harassment from other refugee men in the camp, was a problem, so much so that she didn't leave her tent without her husband. Another woman, also from Mosul said she felt afraid because sometimes men would come into the tents of single women at night.
My travels with Project Monma also took me to Lebanon and Turkey, where I went to meet with Syrian refugee women. They too recounted stories of daily sexual harassment, from the local men. The women were struggling to survive and were desperate for employment. But the male employers, in both Lebanon and Turkey, were asking for sexual favors in return for work. The stress this caused the women, was evident. They were being forced to choose between surviving and sleeping with men, who they did not want to sleep with.
A refugee woman living in alone in a small camp in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon with her five daughters explained to us the concept of 'temporary marriages.' Her husband had abandoned them in Syria and after having made it to Lebanon with her daughters, she was facing extraordinary challenges. She had attempted to look for work, but was met with harassment from male employers. Looking for another way to survive, she decided to sell one of her daughters into a 'temporary marriage.'
A temporary marriage, as was explained to us, is a way for men to get around the cultural law that dictates no sex before marriage. If he marries a girl through a religious wedding, he can then sleep with her and divorce her afterwards. These temporary marriages were being used essentially as prostitution. Middle Eastern men were coming in from other parts of the region, as was explained to us, to look for young girls made vulnerable by war who they could 'buy' for marriage.
One group of Lebanese men in Beirut even told me about a website, where you could exchange information with other men about where you could buy the cheapest and most beautiful Syrian women. There seemed to be little concern for the damage this was causing Syrian women.
Throughout the world, rape has become synonymous with conflict. Sifting through accounts of the many conflicts around the world, endless reports of sexual violence and rape abound. From Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and the many other conflicts that have rampaged our planet, the suffering of women has not been sufficiently documented nor have the perpetrators of such violence been sufficiently held to account.
In a small refugee distribution centre in Gaziantep, Turkey, I met with three Syrian women. They too recounted stories of relentless sexual harassment from Turkish men. I promised that I would do what I could, to tell others about what they were facing while they were trying to seek safety and refuge. So here I am, trying to tell you, what is happening.
What needs to happen next is accountability. These men who choose to take advantage of women and girls with no other way of survival, need to be held accountable. These men that storm women's tents in refugee camps at night to rape other refugee women, need to be held accountable. They need to be held accountable in courts of law and they need to be held accountable amongst us. The international media needs to pay attention and we need to speak up loudly, as a global community, to express our outrage. We need to ensure that the men, who engage in these acts of violence towards women are critized and not allowed to get away with causing such tremendous harm.