As the violence in Syria intensifies, web 2.0 has been employed by Women Under Siege to locate and gather sexual violations against women in Syria. A new Crowdmap has been designed as a platform to accumulate assaults geo-spatially along with documenting reports and information to make them available and accessible for Syrians, aid workers and journalists. Similar to Ushahidi platform, this tool defies the ban imposed by the Syrian regime on free media and human rights workers.
Other platforms designed by Women Under Siege documented the use of sexualized violence in conflicts including Rwanda, Bosnia and Libya, among others. For them, this will show that women suffer alongside men, who are traditionally considered central casualties. But what is different for Syria, is that it is the first time that sexualized violence has been tracked in real-time.
“The goal of this project is to understand where the most support services are needed in Syria or the surrounding refugees’ camps, as well as to document these crimes which could later be useful as evidence in future war crimes trials,” said Jackie Blachman-Forshay, Women Under Siege researcher at Columbia University. The director, Lauren Wolfe, said that the primary goal of this platform is “to make the suffering of women in Syria visible.” The program also aims to move the world into action; Wolfe said that it is important to note that all sides of the struggle in Syria are using propaganda to advance their cause.
It is not an easy task to find women who will come forward especially when rape and sexual assault in the Middle East are perceived as a shameful stigma, and the majority of women choose to bottle up their suffering rather than seeking help. When it comes to women, Syrian society is dominated, like other Middle Eastern communities, by the dual notions of honor and shame. This set of thought needs to be broken now more than ever and Syrians must be encouraged to come forward and report sexual violations. Wolfe said that reporting is the way to restore women’s sense of self when it has been intentionally obliterated by rape, and to show these women that their stories count and they do matter; these women deserve honor and respect because they are survivors of crime, and by sharing their stories they can bring some justice, and be provided with medical and psychological help. WUS also guarantees the safety of victims by keeping their information anonymous; nothing will be stored in a server and all emails are deleted after they are received.
The WUS team cited reports about Imams, Syrian religious leaders, doctors and men in refugees’ camps, all of whom stated that those who have been raped deserve honor and respect. One report documented a refugee camp clinic doctor/pharmacist in Turkey stating that he knows of a family, who came from a village in Jisr al-Shughour, and now living in a Turkish refugees’ camp, whose four daughters were raped by Syrian soldiers. The pharmacist states that he and others have offered to marry the teenage girls to protect their honor. (https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/view/6)
There are specific categories on the Crowdmap site for sexualized violence against men and children. A report originally issued by the UN, describes how male detainees endure multiple forms of sexualized violence as torture, including burning the anus with cigarettes and being raped with batons (https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/view/19). Women Under Siege also has reports of young boys and girls being raped by Syrian government soldiers. In a recent report, a doctor alleged that some 10 and 14 years-old girls are impregnated from rape (http://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/view/30)
WUS crowdsource information comes both personally or second hand from a variety of means like Twitter, SMS, YouTube and the Internet. Reports can be submitted anonymously via website (https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/submit) in either English or Arabic, or via email firstname.lastname@example.org, or by Twitter hashtag #RapeInSyria; second hand reports are also used though they cannot be verified, however, WUS curators see them as being a part of the bigger story of the current Syrian conflict.
Recently, a number of Syrian activists and religious leaders have called upon all Syrian refugees and Syrians to help women who have been subjected to sexual violation. These women are victims and not associates, and they have every right to seek healing, rather than neglecting their trauma so the false sense of shame might go away. Syrians must know that those who should feel shame are the ones who commit such abominable actions to their own people. The perpetrators are predators without shame or honor. Efforts are being made by WUS to help take the burden of guilt from the victim’s shoulders by shedding light on their suffering and urging the world to speak out against these atrocities.