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.