Documenting sexual violence in the Syrian conflict
This blog was written by a member of the team of UK PSVI Experts, recently deployed to the Syrian border to provide training and support to doctors and lawyers who are working with survivors of sexual violence. To protect the individuals involved the author’s name has been withheld.
In a year which has seen the devastating effect of chemical warfare in Syria, the death-toll of Syrian children in the conflict reach over 11,000, and the number of Syrians displaced over the borders exceed 2 million, I have found myself, as a member of the UK PSVI’s Team of Experts, honoured to work with, and constantly amazed by, a group of dedicated and extremely resilient Syrian doctors and lawyers.
"The primary aim of this project is to produce medical documentation of the physical and psychological harm inflicted on victims of torture and sexual violence in the Syrian conflict, which can be used as evidence in future criminal proceedings."
During 2012 and 2013, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has funded and supported a project on the Syrian borders run by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a US-based NGO with a well-established record in training doctors to document torture and sexual violence. The primary aim of this project is to produce medical documentation of the physical and psychological harm inflicted on victims of torture and sexual violence in the Syrian conflict, which can be used as evidence in future criminal proceedings. While contemporaneous medical documentation is rare during conflict, it can be extremely useful in proving torture and sexual violence which often occur in secret or are cloaked in silence or taboo.
Discussion of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) is a sensitive matter in most cultures. In almost every society, cultural and traditional beliefs surrounding sexual violence cause further harm to survivors and can isolate them from much-needed support. This is particularly so in places where the survivors can face recriminations and rejection from their families and their communities, or even the threat of honour killings. As the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria found, “under-reporting and delayed reporting of sexual violence are endemic.” It is incredibly important for survivors who are prepared to report what has happened to them to be supported and their stories to be received without judgement. The Syrian doctors and lawyers being trained have been unfailingly open to discussing and finding ways to address these difficult issues.
"It is incredibly important for survivors who are prepared to report what has happened to them to be supported and their stories to be received without judgement."
In addition to documenting sexual violence in Syria during the conflict, these trained professionals will have the skills to address SGBV which may also occur as an indirect consequence of the conflict. In the countries surrounding Syria, there are now extremely vulnerable, displaced populations, with high numbers of female-headed households and children sent out to work. These groups are at serious risk for SGBV.
The multi-disciplinary UK PSVI team working on this project included an experienced clinical psychologist, whose involvement has allowed the doctors and lawyers to recognise and be sensitive to the psychological impact of trauma to the survivors whose injuries they document. They can also now begin to understand and address the effects of their own experiences, and of the secondary trauma to them of the work they now bravely undertake.
When asked to express some of their frustrations with this work and with their situation, our Syrian colleagues, instead, spoke of hope for their beloved country, of return to their homes and the need for them to work together to bring an end to this war. Sometimes as trainers, we are lucky enough to find the most valuable lessons come from those we train.