On December 9, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, in cooperation with InterAction, held an event on sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in the Syrian conflict. Speakers included Sussan Tahmasebi from the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), Ambassador Steven Steiner from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and Cindy Dyer from Vital Voices. Shabnam Mojtahedi, SJAC’s Legal and Strategy Analyst, moderated the panel after first explaining the impetus behind SJAC’s recent report, Societal Attitudes toward SGBV in Syria.
In Spring 2015, SJAC commissioned the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization (SREO) to conduct a qualitative survey into Syrians’ perceptions of SGBV in the conflict. The report was part of SJAC’s series examining Syrian perceptions on a variety of transitional justice topics. The event at InterAction highlighted the key findings of the report and brought together expert panelists to discuss SGBV responses.
Jessica Lenz, InterAction’s GBV Working Group facilitator, opened the event, then turned the floor to Mojtahedi who gave an overview of SJAC, its work on documenting violations of SGBV, and key findings of the report. She first highlighted the primary challenges of collecting information about Syrian perceptions regarding SGBV. As for findings, Mojtahedi explained that almost all respondents believed that SGBV, while existing prior to the conflict, had spiked in the post-conflict period, primarily due to abuses in Syrian government detention facilities. Respondents were mixed on whether male or female survivors of SGBV would need more support, but generally believed that each group would suffer in different ways. As for attitudes toward justice, Mojtahedi explained that although respondents mentioned justice as a tool, they also expressed pessimism regarding whether trials would be possible; thus, many respondents emphasized psychosocial support and awareness campaigns as alternate means to combat SGBV in the absence of available justice mechanisms.
Mojtahedi next turned to the panelists to elaborate on their areas of expertise. In response to whether prosecutions and other justice initiatives can contribute to increased awareness of SGBV within communities, Dyer explained the three purposes of justice: rehabilitation, punishment, and deterrence. Victims, Dyer said, are often not the ones demanding justice, however, because they would rather return to normalcy and avoid the stigma and shame of the abuse. Dyer said she was not surprised that respondents so strongly connected sexual violence with President Assad because, even the United States, the only times the public tends to care about instances of SGBV is when it involves a public figure. Famous cases can help prompt legislation and increased awareness, like it did in the OJ Simpson case in the United States, but what is really important, Dyer said, is implementation. Implementation requires long-term funding and institutional buy-in — lawyers and prosecutors willing to push cases forward — which is difficult, especially in conflict and post-conflict settings.
Steiner addressed the role of men in increasing community awareness about SGBV and issues affecting women. He specifically elaborated on the Men, Peace, and Security initiative that started at USIP. The premise of the initiative is to counter negative socialization leading to violence through positive socialization that help men unlearn violence. The key, according to Steiner, is to understand that not all men are perpetrators. Programs need to target men who have good values but do not know how to act on them or speak up for the rights of women. With the right tools, said Steiner, these types of men can have a huge impact in their communities. Steiner also spoke about the role of religious leaders and used an example from Afghanistan where mullahs were shown how moderate Islam is practiced elsewhere in the world to demonstrate alternative roles of women in a religious society. But, Steiner insisted, that women also need to be aware of their rights for programs targeting men to be effective.
Tahmasebi described her experience working in Islamic communities to address taboo subjects such as SGBV, specifically discussing anti-sexual harassment activities in Egypt. When Egyptians tried to address the issue of sexual harassment, they encountered difficulties because there was no word for it in Arabic. Activists had to first work to define the term and initiate public discourse, but it eventually resulted in decreasing stigma for women who spoke up about harassment. In Syria, Tahmasebi explained, there is a crisis and crisis situations can create opportunities. People are talking about SGBV and are more receptive to the idea that victims are not to blame. But, Tahmasebi insisted, it is vital to work with indigenous civil society groups to advance women’s rights so that impacts are sustained. The international community, Tahmasebi said, should think long-term and build the capacities of local groups to address the needs of their communities. The types of programs that should be supported, according to Tahmasebi, are trauma training and increased public discourse and awareness-raising trainings that go hand in hand with legislative reforms. In countries like Syria, Tahmasebi said, people do not trust their governments so these messages need to come from civil society instead.
Following the panel discussion, Mojtahedi next turned to the audience for questions. The first question came from an audience member concerned that women themselves are often the ones contributing to the backlash against survivors. Steiner agreed that women often oppose the rights of women. Tahmasebi also responded by saying that the Middle East has a long history of women advocating for their rights, but gender has become very politicized, thus limiting their work.
Another audience member asked whether sympathetic European or North American governments should provide Syrian organizations with verbal support or if such outward support would inherently compromise the integrity and neutrality of an organization’s work. Dyer responded that it is important for victims to know that they are not alone and that they are supported. If governments are vocal about ending impunity for these crimes, victims may be more likely to come forward. Tahmasebi commented that governments can lessen the harmful effects of support if they speak out strongly against all human rights abuses. By staying silent on Saudi atrocities, for example, but condemning Assad, governments politicize their support. Mojtahedi suggested that governments first ask their local partners about the types of non-monetary support they need before making statements on their behalf.
In response to an audience member’s question about the use of local and regional media outlets to promote positive responses to SGBV, Steiner said that there first needs to be an assessment of whether competent, credible in-country media in Syria exists. Tahmasebi gave an example of an effective use of media in addressing SGBV in Iran where a well-known media personality did a story on an incident of incest, which led to more people coming forward. If the media outlet or personality is well-trusted and familiar, then the media can have a positive influence on taboo issues.