Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently released a report titled “We are still here: Women on the front lines of Syria’s conflict,” which details the increasingly significant role women in Syria have been playing over the past three years during the vicious war as well as the additional obstacles that women must face.
Protests against the Syrian government began in 2011, and they quickly erupted into a deadly civil war, pitting antigovernment militias against government forces. According to the United Nations, the war has killed 150,000 people and displaced over nine million. As of June, half of the entire population of the country is currently in need of humanitarian aid.
The report released by HRW includes the stories of 17 different women who fled this destruction in Syria and are now refugees in the neighboring country of Turkey. “Their experiences reflect the various roles that women, particularly those opposed to the government or living in areas that came under government attack, have taken on as political activists, caregivers, humanitarians, and providers, as well as the particular ways in which conflict impacts women.”
Because many men have had to leave their homes due to “indiscriminate attacks, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, or engagement in military operations,” women have become especially vulnerable, having less support in the case of an emergency, and having the additional responsibility of sole breadwinner.
Raids by armed forces and abductions, in which women are more highly targeted, become larger threats without this support. When women are abducted or arbitrarily detained, they are also disproportionately prone to receive abuse, including sexual assault and torture.
Some armed groups have explicitly targeted women in Syria, putting in place discriminatory policies that limit “women’s engagement in public life and ability to move freely” and “their access to education and employment.” In addition to fear of conflict, these types of overt restrictions severely limit women’s mobility.
However, many women are fighting back. Maha, a Syrian woman and founder of a peaceful activism organization, is continuing her organization’s civic work in Syria even though she fled the country after losing her husband to a government attack.
Maha is worried, however, that the work her organization and others like it are doing is being covered by the images of violence, saying, “On the news, you only see blood and destruction. You don’t see that behind it, there are civilian groups doing things peacefully.”
This HRW report has helped to shed light on the experiences Syrian women have had during this troubling conflict. They are at a disproportionately high risk to experience abuse and many have had to assume challenging and dangerous leadership roles.
“Recognizing women’s multiple and significant roles in the conflict,” the report noted, “and their experiences as both actors and victims, is critical to developing appropriate responses to women’s needs inside Syria and in refugee communities and to ensuring their ongoing and meaningful participation in determining Syria’s future.”
– Emily Jablonski