Rape in Syria and Egypt - A Policy Priority Ignored

Fears of regional spillover, the growing number of European jihadists who could prove a future threat and the escalating refugee crisis dominate the headlines but there is one element that is consistently absent from discussion at the policy level. That issue is sexual violence.

The coverage of the unravelling situation in Egypt and the Syrian conflict has been unremitting to the point of densensitization. Fears of regional spillover, the growing number of European jihadists who could prove a future threat and the escalating refugee crisis dominate the headlines but there is one element that is consistently absent from discussion at the policy level. That issue is sexual violence.

While it is deplorable that barely any attention has been paid to the impact of sexual and gender based violence on victims in both conflicts, worse still is the complete lack of condemnation by Western leaders of the sheer scale of what is going on. Human rights advocacy organizations have released damning reports calling for improved psychosocial support and assistance for those who have suffered these heinous crimes, but the issue as yet has not been overtly referenced on the international stage as a policy priority. While espousing the importance of the will of the people and democratic freedom of expression, moral leadership is absent on the issue of protecting the basic personal safety of all citizens - including women.

David Cameron and Angela Merkel have remained completely silent on the topic, while President Obama made one oblique reference to sexual violence in a phone call with President Morsi prior to his ouster. Obama recently stated that when it comes to victims of sexual assault within the US military he's "got their backs." As a president who has repeatedly stressed a desire to provide moral leadership internationally, his voice has been absent on the sexual nature of the violence perpetrated in Syria and Egypt.

The UN recently recognized Syria as the worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda. But the media focus of the Syrian crisis thus far has been the shocking number of civilians killed, families displaced and the political pitfalls of potential intervention. However, an epidemic of sexual violence and intimidation is going untold in Syria. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently reported that rape is the primary reason that families fled the country. Take a second and let that sink in. UNHCR reports that currently there are 1,806,181 refugees, 75% of whom are women and children. The scale of those figures if the IRC findings are to be believed is truly staggering.

The details within these reports are horrifying. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that "Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys detained during the current conflict. Witnesses and victims also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas." The HRW report included testimony that women are being sent to different locations to be raped by commanding officers.

The IRC reported that "these rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members." The IRC was also told of attacks in which women and girls were kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed. Worse still, social stigma and the perceived "dishonor" attached to rape means that Syrian families rarely report rape. Often this leads to "shamed" family members being married off at an early age to "safeguard their honor". Reports of extremely young Syrian girls being forced into sham marriages for sex in refugee camps in Jordan are widespread, meaning that even those who escape Syria are not guaranteed safety.

As the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre notes, "these kinds of accounts and documentation are vital. They establish a general recognition that rape and other crimes are occurring. Moreover, publicly exposing this violence gives solidarity to survivors, helps reduce the stigma associated with the crimes, and encourages others who have experienced similar violence to speak out. Such attention could also dissuade others from committing acts of [sexual and gender based violence]." This scrutiny and attention from global policymakers is completely absent.

The story in Egypt is not much better, but at least the extent of the problem there has received a certain degree of attention in recent weeks. The sexual crimes perpetrated against Egypt's female population since the beginnings of its revolution within Tahrir square have received some media coverage, but there too the scale and intensity of assaults has peaked in recent weeks.

Nina Burleigh wrote an excellent piece detailing the history of sexual assaults in Egypt - including high profile attacks on female journalists from both the Netherlands and USA. HRW reported 91 sexual assaults in just four days at the height of early July's protests against Morsi. No small amount of praise must go to the independent groups trying to protect women from the sexual predation that ran rampant in Tahrir square, but fundamentally the responsibility to protect women in Egypt must fall on the police and military. The ability to enforce the rule of law and protect its own citizens is a core concept of the responsibility of the state, and greater pressure must be placed upon Egypt to protect its female citizens from the atrocities they face simply for lacking a Y chromosome.

The international media must recognize that women's rights are essential to democracy and that the relegation of sexual assault to somehow lower importance than other types of assault does not befit countries in search of freedom from oppression. Worse still is that paragons of democracy in the West have failed to speak out on this issue. If we cannot speak out against outrages committed against women in Syria and Egypt this sends the dangerous message that strategic considerations matter more than espousing fundamental values. I would argue that protecting the rights of women around the globe is a strategic consideration. Not only are women essential to the consolidation of democracy and leadership within nascent civil society, they also happen to be just as worthy of our protection and policy consideration as men.

Much has been made of the redline of chemical weapon usage in Syria, but I would be extremely interested to see how erstwhile allies Russia and China couldt justify the actions of Syrian forces against women. It is time to call a war crime a war crime in Syria. In Egypt the path is less clear, as understandably Western powers do not want to appear to be meddling in what has become an increasingly messy post-Mubarak Egypt. However, it does not appear excessive to expect our leaders to at least publicly condemn the systematic rape and assault of Egypt's female citizens.

As both Syria and Egypt struggle to chart a course of self-determination there is a responsibility incumbent upon our own countries who have fought hard for women's rights within their borders to encourage a push towards equality abroad. While Western countries themselves have not yet delivered upon the promise of equality enshrined in their constitutions, at a bare minimum we should condemn publicly the sexual violence visited upon women in Syria and Egypt. The perpetrators of this violence should face the full force of the law and the public shaming they deserve, while the victims should receive all of the support we an muster. A public declaration that this is the case should not be too much to ask from our own leaders.

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