Women in Syria have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, physically abused, harassed, and tortured during Syria's conflict by government forces, pro-government militias, and armed groups opposed to the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) will conduct a review of the situation for Syrian women on July 4, 2014, in Geneva.
The 47-page report, “We Are Still Here: Women on the Front Line of Syria's Conflict,” profiles 17 Syrian women who are now refugees in Turkey. Through written and photographic portraits, the report documents ways in which the conflict impacts women in particular. Women profiled in the report experienced violations by government and pro-government forces as well as by armed groups opposed to the government such as Liwa'al-Islam and extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Some female activists and humanitarian aid providers said they had been threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and tortured by government or armed opposition forces. All six former detainees profiled in the report experienced physical abuse or torture in detention; one woman was sexually assaulted multiple times. Other women said they had been victims of discriminatory restrictions on their dress and movement. Several women were injured or lost family members in indiscriminate attacks on civilians by government forces.
“Women have not been spared any aspect of the brutality of the Syrian conflict, but they are not merely passive victims,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women's rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Women are taking on increasing responsibilities – whether by choice or due to circumstance – and they should not have to pay with intimidation, arrest, abuse, or even torture.”
The United Nations committee review is an opportunity to highlight the plight of women in Syria – in particular, that the government of Syria and many non-state actors are committing abuses against women and girls in a climate of total impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The committee should urge the Syrian government to cease arbitrary arrest and detention and all forms of violence against women, to investigate such abuses, and to hold those responsible to account. During its review, the committee is responsible for assessing the state party's adherence to its obligations under CEDAW and recommending actions it should take to improve the situation for women and girls.
The UN Security Council, Syrian government, and other concerned parties should also ensure women's full and meaningful representation and participation in all future peace talks or negotiations, as well as in subsequent policy-making and peace-building processes, Human Rights Watch said.
The report is based on interviews with 27 refugee women and representatives of 7 service providers in Gaziantep and Kilis, Turkey, in March and April 2014. Several of the women told Human Rights Watch that government forces or non-state armed groups had harassed, threatened, or detained them because of their peaceful activism, including planning and participating in nonviolent demonstrations and providing humanitarian assistance to needy Syrians. Other women described their experiences after they became de facto household heads or primary providers when government forces detained male family members, or when they were injured or killed in indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by armed groups.
Maisa, 30, was providing medical assistance to civilians and working for a pro-opposition satellite television station before government security forces detained her in Damascus in April 2013. Members of the security forces beat her throughout the night with a thick green hose: “They slapped me on the face. They pulled me from my hair. They hit me on my feet, on my back, all over.” The women profiled were identified only by their first name or by a pseudonym, depending on their individual security situations.
Some non-state armed groups also harassed and detained women profiled in the report, and imposed discriminatory policies on women and girls, including restrictions on their dress and freedom of movement. Berivan, 24, a Syrian Kurd, was providing medical aid to people living in the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus when the non-state armed group Liwa' al-Islam detained her. She was released after 10 days, but when she tried to re-open her makeshift pharmacy in the camp, ISIS threatened her because she was wearing the hijab (headscarf) but not the abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length robe): “They said, ‘If we see you like this again, we will kill you. If we ever see you in this area, we will hang you.'”
Other women told Human Rights Watch that they were injured or lost family members in indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. Several had become their family's primary provider as a result of the conflict. Four of Amal's five children were killed in a July 2013 barrel bombing in Aleppo. Shortly thereafter, her husband suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and with impaired speech. Amal, 44, serves as his caregiver. In March, the family went to Turkey to seek medical treatment and rehabilitative care for her husband. There they were sleeping outside in a park and relying on charity for meals.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings in March 2011, Human Rights Watch has conducted investigative missions in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurdistan to document human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, discriminatory restrictions on women and girls, summary executions, unlawful neighborhood demolitions, and use of chemical and incendiary weapons.
In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and CEDAW, which the government of Syria ratified in 2003, all parties to the conflict should take measures to protect women and girls from violence during conflict, including but not limited to sexual and gender-based violence. Resolution 1325 and CEDAW also require state parties to hold those responsible for such abuses to account, provide support for women's medical, psycho-social, and economic needs, and ensure women's meaningful inclusion at all levels in further peace negotiations and state-building initiatives.
“The women of Syria have faced extraordinary loss, yet they persist as activists, caregivers, and humanitarians,” Gerntholtz said. “The international community needs to hold the Syrian government and armed groups accountable for abuses against women and girls, and donor governments should help to meet their immediate needs and press for women's active participation in determining Syria's future.”