As the conflict in Syria worsens, reports have emerged indicating that sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) is being used as a tool of war. However, reliable information on SGBV remains scarce due to survivors’ fears of social stigma and the lack of capacity among documentation groups to ethically handle SGBV cases. On July 9, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) presented its progress on SGBV documentation during a closed-session roundtable discussion hosted by the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC. The discussion was a forum for diplomats and experts to provide feedback, share lessons-learned, and propose ways forward.
SJAC’s SGBV Policy — SJAC began the discussion with an in depth look at the challenges of SGBV documentation and a discussion of the Gender and SGBV Policy its staff drafted and implemented to overcome each challenge. The Policy serves as an internal manual and was developed based on input from survivor support services. SJAC has trained its documentation staff on implementation, supplemented by external training by SGBV experts. SJAC explained that its SGBV documentation seeks to ensure that survivors have the opportunity to access their right to justice — even in the absence of law enforcement — so long as it is by choice and informed by a true understanding of the risks and expectations. For full access to justice, the documentation must not only feed into accountability mechanisms, but survivors must also have opportunities to engage with the design of those mechanisms.
Dual Referral System — In order to better access survivors and also fulfill the Policy’s obligation to Do No Harm, SJAC developed a Dual Referral Program, whereby support services inform survivors about the option to document their experiences with SJAC and SJAC informs survivors about support services in the area following the documentation process. In April, SJAC’s Program Coordinator in southern Turkey gathered ten Syrian and international support services to explain SJAC’s policies, the purposes of documentation, and practical details about the dual referral system. To date, he has been able to establish several partnerships and remains in regular contact with the others. Despite the progress, challenges remain. Syrian support services lack the capacity and resources to provide comprehensive support to all who need it, and the disconnect between Syrian local staff and internationals hinders progress.
Key Findings on Perceptions of SGBV — After SJAC finished describing its Policy and Dual Referral Program, the discussion turned to the findings from recent qualitative research on SGBV which SJAC commissioned in the Spring of 2015. Researchers interviewed 30 Syrian women and 30 Syrian men living as refugees in Turkey. Many respondents said they had been personally affected or knew someone affected by SGBV. None of the respondents stigmatized or blamed victims of SGBV, but most expressed concerns that their communities would not be as understanding. Respondents perceived that male survivors would have an easier time recovering emotionally, while women would need additional support. Half of respondents believed that accountability was the only way for Syria to move forward post-conflict. More research is needed on the issue, however, as researchers found it difficult to disaggregate negative feelings towards the Syrian government from perceptions of SGBV. SJAC plans to release a full report in upcoming weeks.
Discussion Among Roundtable Participants — Following the presentation by SJAC, the roundtable participants began the discussion by addressing one of the biggest challenges — the lack of a holistic and integrated approach on SGBV in Syria. A participant expressed that the donor community has had trouble applying an integrated approach and some participants asked how to use their government’s influence to aid documentation and prevention efforts. Another participant commented that despite increases in trainings that equip local personnel with necessary tools, efforts are often duplicated and uncoordinated. All participants were in consensus that there was no ideal model to learn from. One participant expressed that the “wheel has to constantly be reworked during every conflict.” A participant presented Sierra Leone as a possible model because of the sustained international support for psychosocial services even after the conflict ended. “It is hard to follow through [with survivors of SGBV] but follow through doesn’t mean not following up” explained one of the participants. For transitional justice, following through means survivors can participate in the design of the process, and one participant emphasized the importance of asking survivors about the type of justice mechanism they would like to see implemented as a component of the documentation interview.
The group concluded by discussing how to keep prioritizing the issue of SGBV after the conflict. A participant expressed the concern that survivors receive a large influx of aid during conflict, but afterwards, the aid subsides. Another issue that was raised was the need to increase awareness and education on the topic in the refugee camps and institute prevention campaigns while the issue can still be openly discussed. Another participant suggested mirroring the Yazidis’ example of having religious leaders publically welcome the women and girls that were raped back into their community. One participant expressed skepticism because in Jordan, religious leaders called for the girls to be married off instead of reintegrating the survivors into the community. Female survivors who sought refuge in Western countries have been more willing to speak out about their experiences on social media, and one participant suggested that the stories of survivors on social media coupled with the call of religious leaders could lead to a powerful education campaign.
For more information and to provide feedback please email SJAC at [email protected] .