Women and insecurity in conflict areas: the Syrian case

Women and insecurity in conflict areas: the Syrian case

woman-holding-waterOne of my dearest geopolitics professors used to say that women are the most important resource of any country, but a resource frequently overlooked in geopolitical analysis and in the shaping of strategies. Most often, when this vital resource is taken into account, it is only done so by assessing the demographic potential of regeneration and growth using the concept of women’s fertility. But taking the issue further than that only happens rarely, though the conclusions of such insight should speak for themselves.

For example, works like King and Hill (1993) have shown that women’s education and, more broadly speaking, women’s well-being, are directly connected to all types of growth in a country, beyond the purely economic growth. A country that offers more education, freedom and rights to women also experiences a higher level of health, security, self-perceived happiness, prosperity and social development. The issue isn’t a one-way implication: we should not assume that countries and regions that already fare well on these matters simply offer more education and such to their women because they afford to; data has shown that as soon as these extra freedoms are given to the women in developing countries, the social and economic development begins in that country as well.

But as ignorant as the mainstream humanities and analysts seem to be to this gender problematic for developing better and more stable countries in terms of security (or, in other words, for avoiding the occurrence of – and the crisis associated with – the so-called failed states), the more aware of the importance of women the perpetrators of instability seem to be. They seem to know very well that in order to destabilize a region, they need to hit as hard as they can in this demographic sector: for when women are wounded, the society as a whole is disoriented and suffers, unable to organize a coherent response to aggression. This may sound as an opinion a tad too personal, but I have formed it by observing trends in the modern conflicts and crisis of the past decades and the phenomena seems to be somewhat generalized. The conflicts I’m referring to are the ones often missing an official “aggressor” or perpetrator, the ones animated by the so-called “rebels” or various terrorist groups, or generalized states of civil war among various faction. Official warfare such as the invasion of Irak or other such Western-initiated massive troop deployments don’t count, although the scandals regarding the western soldier’s behavior in the Middle East could arguably persuade me otherwise. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll maintain the definition described above. For further documentation on this tendency of consciously (on purpose) targeting women in order to cripple the natural flow of society and its general “health”, I would recommend the documentary “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” (2007).

The current crisis in Syria, that has been going on for quite a while now, is no exception to this pattern. Women from the region – whether they remain in conflict zones or flee to neighboring areas as refugees – face constant danger as subjects to violence (not always sexual, but often so). The inquiries and fieldwork made by Lauren Wolfe on behalf of CNN revealed that the act of violence is usually only the beginning: the cultural representation of purity gives rape victims a tricky social status that further endangers them. Because a woman or a girl that survived a sexual assault is considered compromised and shameful in the traditional societal views, a lot of such victims turn to suicide as the final solution to escape their stigma and shame. In other cases, their families, wanting to solve the problem quickly and quietly, marry the victims off with cousins or other male relatives, to give them a less-shameful social standing. Obviously, rushed and unplanned marriages, often pairing under-aged girls and boys, aren’t really helping society put up with its problems, nor is it creating a healthier environment to promote openness and growth. This way, as already stated above, the violence itself is only the beginning of the problem.

As to the matter of purposefully using this kind of violence as a war method and to destabilize an area and a people, things are once more no different in the Syrian case. A Wahhabi religious cleric, Muhammad-al-Arifi, has reportedly even issued a fatwa allowing – and encouraging – the jihadists in Syria to rape the women they encounter there. This detail should say enough on the matter: the potential to destabilize an area by targeting its women first of all is a well-known wartime strategy and apparently still employable in such conflict areas where the attacker doesn’t have a very well contoured identity, nor a strict set of rules to follow (as would a institutional opponent have, at least in the Western world).

To asses the situation better, NGOs and human relief agencies, as well as international analysts now have access to two new resources: the first one, supported by CNN, is a map of aggressions against women in Syria (https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/) which gets updated in real time and pairs the occurrences together pointing out the most problematic areas. The second resource is the extremely well-documented report made by the IRC (International Rescue Committee), which highlights the forms of violence which Syrian girls which fled to Lebanon face and how to prevent them. The full report can be accessed online ( http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/New-Resources2/A-New-Resource-Syrian-Women-Girls-Fleeing-death-facing-ongoing-threats-and-humiliation)  certainly provides a good starting point for all attempts to understand all the implications of violence against women, the sometimes surprising contexts in which this kind of violence usually occurs, and what can be done to improve the conditions of vulnerable women from the Syrian conflict zone.

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