LONDON (TrustLaw) - The use of sexual violence in Syria's bloody conflict is on a larger scale than expected and the extent of it is likely to be "quite shocking" when it comes to light, a top official with the International Rescue Committee warned on Thursday.
In a report issued this week, the aid agency - which specialises in gender issues - described rape as "a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war". In assessments carried out among refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian women, men and community leaders singled out sexual violence as a primary reason for fleeing the country, the IRC said.
"There is a real fear of rape, of torture, of mass killings of girls inside Syria," Sanj Srikanthan, the IRC's emergency field director, told AlertNet in an interview. "It has now shaped up to be the number-one reason ... why people are fleeing Syria. It's not food or heating or shelter - it's protection. Sexual violence would be the leading reason (among) those protection concerns."
According to the IRC report, many women and girls spoke of being attacked in public or in their homes, mainly by armed men, with rapes - sometimes by multiple perpetrators - often occurring in front of family members. There have been attacks in which women and young girls were kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed, while roadblocks in Syria have become especially dangerous for females, it added.
Srikanthan emphasised that the IRC cannot say how many Syrian women have suffered sexual attacks due to restricted access to the country, but in anecdotal evidence, rape is being reported as a major issue.
"I think people are incredulous about the scale of the problem, and we can't say there are 'x'-many (women), but I think this will come out, it will come out slowly after the conflict, as it usually does," Srikanthan said.
In the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, the full extent of rapes - tens of thousands in each case - only emerged once the violence was over, he noted.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the final number in Syria is quite shocking to people again when it finally gets discovered," he added.
Syrian survivors of sexual violence are reluctant to report it because of the dishonour rape brings to women and their families, the IRC report said. Some are afraid of retribution by assailants or even of being killed by their own family members.
"The fear of rape is so significant that many families are marrying off their daughters to 'protect' them from rape. Others revert to early marriage if their daughters have been sexually assaulted 'to safeguard their honour'," the report said.
Specialised services for survivors of physical and sexual violence are scarce in the countries that are hosting the 650,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict - Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Funding from international donors is not enough to meet the vast needs of women and girls, the IRC noted in its report.
The aid group is running two women's centres in Lebanon, with two more planned, and two in Jordan, where it is offering counselling and clinical referral services for victims of sexual violence. This is done confidentially, in order to build trust among refugee communities and encourage more women to come forward for help without drawing attention to what has happened to them.
The IRC also highlighted the need for greater protection for refugee women in camps and crowded shelters, where they lack privacy and are at risk of domestic violence due to high family stress levels.
Growing poverty among the large numbers of refugees struggling to cover their living costs in towns and cities is also a threat to women's safety, the IRC said. It has heard accounts of women trading sex for food and desperate families selling girls into early marriage to reduce household numbers or to be able to pay rent, the report said.
"Programmes that provide women and girls with relevant and needed material goods and economic support are necessary to reduce exploitative jobs and survival sex, and strengthen families," it recommended, alongside other measures to protect women and help them cope with the trauma of sexual violence.