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Putting rape in Syria on the map

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Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualised violence in conflict.

In this e-mail interview, she explains how open source crowd-mapping technology is being used to track incidents of rape in the ongoing conflict in Syria and what they hope to achieve with the Syria crowdmap project.

How did the project come about?

The idea for the Syria crowdmap came from a doctor at Harvard. We met while both looking on Twitter for reports about rape in the conflict and were on the phone after about 10 minutes of chatting online. We teamed up with a few Syrian activists and an epidemiologist at Columbia, and launched in just a few weeks.

We knew this is an ongoing, breaking crisis, and that we had to start quickly if we were going to capture the atrocities as they happened. And that’s why we did it—too often these stories of what women endure are gathered after the fact, when much evidence has been destroyed or lost to shame and silence.

Why is it important to collate information about rape in conflict?

These are the stories that do not get told. Women’s experiences in war have long been second-page news or not covered at all. We’re leaving out half of humanity’s suffering if we neglect these stories, and we’re relegating women’s pain to the trash heap of history – silence is a strong statement in the case of rape or war.We have to make clear to the women caught up in the horrors of conflict that we have not forgotten them, and that when they suffer, we actually care.

What you plan to do with the information you are collecting?

The idea right now is to gather a base of documentation that will hopefully be useful in putting together evidence that could be used in potential war crimes trials. The information is also crucial to understanding where women are most in need—where organisations can send survivor services to help them.

My hope is that just putting these stories on the map, literally, serves to show the world that we are paying attention, that we will no longer sit back and wait to find out later how women have been brutalised.

Have you managed to detect any patterns to these crimes as yet?

It’s clear that something very terrible happened in Homs on the night of March 11-12. We have a number of reports (here’s just one) pointing to mass rape. But that is the kind of information that will be carefully vetted as we are able to triangulate sources. Our team of epidemiologists as well as Physicians for Human Rights will be working to do that as we get farther along.

Other patterns, which have been confirmed with human rights organisations include: the rape of women at checkpoints; the violation of women who are brought to jails to be raped in front of their husbands and the rape of the male detainees themselves.

A number of reports of mass rapes seem to occur after the army bombs a town – then shabiha (government-aligned plainclothes militia forces) come in and loot houses and rape and kill women. The attacks can be sorted by type and perpetrator here.

How do stories of rape get reported?

The stigma attached to rape cannot be underestimated. I’ve spoken to women from Guatemala to Madagascar who have never told anyone they were raped but me. Often they seem to find a release in the telling, so I’m grateful to be able to provide that. But what kind of societies are we creating that not only destroy a woman’s body in an act of sexualised violence but then convince her she will be killed, re-raped, bribed, shunned, or laughed at if she speaks out about what happened to her?

So we as journalists, human rights workers, and humans, have to speak out when they are unable. The silence of women around the world is a gray, heavy layer in the atmosphere. It’s why I do this work—I can’t bear the thought that a woman somewhere is suffering because of something entirely out of her control.

Rape effectively destroys her. It also tears apart her family and her community, unfortunately, if she chooses to speak out. We have to begin to take responsibility for one another, even in situations that are full of horror and fear. No one woman should be left to carry that pain alone.

And in conflict, we’re talking about hundreds or thousands of women raising children born of rape, nursing physical wounds Do caused by rape, and dealing with trauma from rape beyond anything they should have to handle on their own.

Do you have any thoughts about how the reporting of rape has been politicised?

Every side has something to gain or lose through stories of sexualized violence.

Women’s bodies are used as battlegrounds in conflict both literally and figuratively—there is much to be gained by making your opponent look like a raping mass of animal-like men. Underreporting is the basic problem when you’re looking at sexualized violence in war. But in some cases, you have to be mindful of overreporting for this reason.

I’ve been in touch with people working on understanding what happened to women in Libya, and it seems too early to say whether rape happened on a large scale. I’ve heard opposing views, and I’m not able to determine yet what really happened there and at the moment, it doesn’t seem that anyone is.

We have to be really careful at this stage to say how much any of these things are actually happening. It’s still a matter of comparing and vetting stories to determine which may be true and which may be convoluted versions of others or even propaganda.

What do you think about how rape is being reported by the media in recent conflicts – is there any change from previous ones?

I’m encouraged that women’s stories are in some of the coverage, but I don’t think we’re there yet in how we talk about them. These women have entire lives and are more than just the horror of their rapes. (They are also more than what they wore or looked like, which is a common problem for the media reporting on rape in general.)

At the same time, I can’t necessarily fault journalists covering a war for not doing features on women as opposed to spot news while covering all aspects of war.

It’s really about showing sensitivity—whether in reporting on a soldier’s death or a woman’s rape. But it’s also about showing the bigger picture so we can get a handle on how rape is being used as a weapon of war. Is it being used as part of ethnic cleansing as it was in Bosnia? Is it meant to create food insecurity as it was in Darfur?

We have to look closely — zoom-lens closely — at masculinity and how it is being twisted into a form that pushes men to do these terrible things in wartime. It’s time to recognise that we’re getting nowhere by looking at these acts askance, and that we’re headed for more of the same if we don’t start right now.

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