A Syrian refugee waits to cross the border into Turkey. Photo: Uygar Onder Simsek/AFP/Getty Images
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Is the way the media reports Islamic State’s treatment of women making things worse?

As in any war, the “rape crisis” in Syria and Iraq is complicated, and the way it is reported shapes the false assumptions and stigma women face.

Anyone who has been following coverage of the conflict in Syria and Iraq will know that the region has seen a major rape crisis. Much of the media coverage has focused obsessively on the horrendous violence against Yazidi women and girls escaping from Isis captivity, with details sometimes bordering on the salacious about slave markets, forced marriage, and multiple rapes. Is it possible that this is doing more harm than good?

A group of scholars argued last year in the Washington Post that the coverage risks being counterproductive: “To scholars of sexual violence, these media narratives look typical in three related ways: They are selective and sensationalist; they obscure deeper understandings about patterns of wartime sexual violence; and they are laden with false assumptions about the causes of conflict rape.”

The violence against Yazidi women is unarguably horrific, an exceptionally extreme example of sexual violence. But this is not the whole story. As in any war, the “rape crisis” is complicated: it is not perpetrated by any one group. In Syria, regime forces have been using rape as a weapon of war since the conflict began in 2011. Islamist groups and rebels have also been responsible for violations. Women displaced by conflict, often left widowed or without a male guardian, face exploitation and abuse at refugee camps or in host countries.

Mandana Hendessi, the regional director for the Middle East for the NGO, Women for Women International, objects to the way that women have often been portrayed as victims. “With the Yazidi women, to some degree, I felt that their experiences were sensationalised,” she says. “In none of those articles have I read anything about how they resisted. There’s no mention of women trying to take things in their control. The very fact they ran away the moment they had the opportunity – that shows incredible resilience. Some self-harmed with corrosive substances on their faces to protect themselves from the men, and some shaved their eyebrows and eyelashes. But the way it has been portrayed in the media, it looks like these women had no power. Stripping them of agency removes their dignity.”

A recent article published by the Daily Beast argued that western journalists covering the violence against Yazidi women have sometimes been insensitive in their search for shocking details. “Does the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy? I don’t think so and there are indications that victims would agree,” wrote Sherizaan Minwalla.

Hendessi notes that there is a risk of women being stigmatised. “Yazidi men are now the obstacle to women’s progress. They are not allowing the women to go anywhere as there is this fear that the women might be kidnapped again. To the community, it feels like a tremendous shame has fallen up on them.”

Of course, it is incredibly important that sexual violence is reported on, and that the issue is discussed widely in order to effect the kind of practical changes that can protect women. But it is also important that this reporting is done responsibly and in a sensitive manner, particularly given the shame and stigma associated with rape. “Refugee camps take away your individual dignity, and you are exposed to all sorts of professionals – doctors, lawyers, journalists,” says Hendessi. “There can be a lack of respect for women’s privacy.”

The Washington Post article argued that “reports of Islamic State imprisonment and rape of Yazidi women have effectively erased more common and complex patterns”. These more complex patterns include the exploitation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan by landlords and employers; the trafficking of women from official refugee camps. There is a full range of issues, from abuse by regime forces, to the rape of men, to the extreme poverty of refugee populations, that are common to many conflicts around the world. These issues deserve attention too.

The steps that need to be taken to protect women are not particularly headline-grabbing initiatives: the proper policing of refugee camps, extensive psychosocial support for women who have been victims of sexual violence, and economic empowerment for women displaced by conflict. But only by understanding the complicated nature of the problem can effective long and short term solutions be put in place.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The government has quietly shut the door on vulnerable child refugees

The government has tried to halt the Dubs Amendment, a scheme designed to save thousands of vulnerable child refugees.  

The "Dubs Amendment" to the Immigration Bill of last year, in which the government begrudgingly promised to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from other countries in Europe, was halted this month after only 350 children had been admitted.

It has since become absolutely clear that the government is wriggling out of its obligation to accept child refugees, shutting the door on the most vulnerable. 

The amendment was named after my Labour colleague in the House of Lords. Alfred Dubs, who grew up in Britain and was saved from the hands of the German Nazi regime by Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children virtually single-handedly from Czechoslovakia.

The decision – announced at a time when the media was mainly concentrating on Brexit - has since been the source of much outcry both within Parliament and beyond. People across Britain are clear that the government must end these efforts to prevent refugees arriving here, and this is not who we as a society are.

Labour simply cannot accept the government’s decision, which seems to breach the spirit of the law passed with cross-party support. I have challenged Home Secretary Amber Rudd on the issue. 

The government's actions have also been criticised by Yvette Cooper, who heads Labour’s refugee task force and the Home Affairs select committee, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who called it “a clear dereliction of the UK’s moral and global duty”. 

Then at the recent Bafta awards, a number of those in attendance including the actor Viggo Mortensen, also wore lapel badges reading “Dubs now”.

And we have seen more than 200 high-profile public figures including Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightley, Sir Mark Rylance, Gary Lineker, Michael Morpurgo and the band Coldplay write to Theresa May calling on her government not to close the scheme, decrying the decision as “truly shameful” and adding that “the country we know and love is better than this". 

As the letter states, it is embarrassing, that this government cannot match even Winton’s total. As his own daughter put it in her letter to the Prime Minister, “I know we can’t take in every unaccompanied child in Europe, but I suppose there was a sense when the government accepted the Dubs Amendment that they would make a bigger contribution than they have.”

We need to be clear that where safe and legal routes are blocked for these children, they are left with a terrible choice between train tracks on the one hand, and people traffickers on the other. These children have been identified as the most vulnerable in the world, including girls without parents, who are susceptible to sex traffickers.

The government’s decision is particularly disappointing in that we know that many local authorities across Britain, which assume responsibility for the children once they are admitted to the country, are willing to accept more refugees.

Yet the public outcry shows we can still force a change.

Interestingly, former Conservative minister Nicky Morgan has argued that: “Britain has always been a global, outward-facing country as well as being compassionate to those who need our help most. The Conservative party now needs to demonstrate that combination in our approach to issues such as the Dubs children.”

Let’s keep the pressure up on this vital issue. The internationally agreed principles and the Dubs Amendment were never conceived as a “one-off” - they should continue to commit to meeting their international treaty obligations and our own laws.

And on our part, Labour commits to meeting the obligations of the Dubs Amendment. We will restore the scheme and accept some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.