Iraq and Syria war takes toll on women

Women in Syria and Iraq have taken the brunt of the civil war in their country, with many of them inprisoned, raped and abused.

Iraq and Syria war takes toll on women

World Bulletin / News Desk

Some Syrians say outrage over the sentencing of a teenage girl was a spark that started the country's two-and-a-half year revolt. A month before protests started in March 2011, Tal al-Mallohi - a 19-year-old who blogged about wanting to shape her country's future - was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of spying.

Having already been imprisoned for over a year, Mallohi was brought to the court chained and blindfolded. Her mother, who was waiting in the courtyard, burst into tears.

A Syrian court granted Mallohi amnesty last month as part of a three-way hostage swap. When she emerges from prison, she will find her country radically changed.

Women in Syria have been targeted by Syrian security forces during the revolt and civil war, rights groups say. Thousands have survived rape and torture and Syrian jails have filled with women and girls.

Outside Syria, refugees say desperation is forcing some to marry off their daughters as child brides and aid workers report an emerging sex trade in camps.

Syria ranked 19th out of 22 Arab states in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on women's rights ( The survey of gender experts carried out in August and September was based on key provisions of a U.N. convention against gender discrimination that almost all Arab states, including Syria, have signed.

Experts rated Syria badly in most categories, including gender violence, reproductive rights, economic inclusion, treatment of women within the family and attitudes towards women in politics and society.

They also said the war had had a devastating impact on women's rights, putting millions of women and girls at risk of trafficking, forced and child marriage and sexual violence.


A Syrian lawyer, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity from the capital, said that female detainees she visits in jails have bruising, open blisters on their feet, skin and eye infections and dried blood on their bodies.

Another Damascus-based rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, said women were often imprisoned without charges. Some are held because they smuggled food through army checkpoints. Others had photos of anti-Assad rallies on their phones.

"None of them have carried weapons and fought against government troops," he said, estimating that 3,000-4,000 female prisoners still live in detention in Syria.

He said many died due to torture, lack of medical care or asphyxiation. He said they were often kept in underground dungeons that have no sunlight, and some with small children.

In one of his cases, an entire family with six children was detained, Bunni said. Some women are also imprisoned as hostages to be traded with their male relatives wanted by the state, he said.

"There's the added humiliation of being tortured by men, and the women sometimes are forced to be nude," he said. "There are cases of rape while in detention, and if she's not raped, she's probably been threatened with rape."

Bunni has a pregnant client who says she was raped in jail.


New York-based Human Rights Watch has documented accounts of sexual assault in jail and during army raids - one on a girl as young at 12 - in what it says is a tactic "to humiliate and degrade".

Sema Nassar, a Lattakia-based activist documenting rights abuses against women, says that because the government doesn't acknowledge that these abuses occur, it has been hard for her to openly reach out to survivors.

"For example, we have a system in place to help raped survivors to test for pregnancy and diseases and offer psych help. And we help if they want to abort and we even have a shelter for children who are the result of rape, all funded by Syrian expatriate doctors," she said.

"But we can't advertise it, or work in the open, because no one admits to it, starting with the regime itself."

Women have played an integral part in Syria's uprising-turned-civil-war, from supporting rebels to smuggling contraband and running underground networks of humanitarian relief in besieged areas.

The Syrian revolt started with peaceful protests that were met with gunfire by state security. After several months, the revolt armed itself and now more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.


One year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, then-President George W. Bush told a gathering at the White House: "Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed."

Although few miss Saddam's iron-fisted rule or the wars and sanctions he brought upon Iraq, women have been disproportionately affected by the violence that has blighted the lives of almost all Iraqis.

Domestic abuse and prostitution have increased, illiteracy has soared and thousands of women have been left widowed and vulnerable. Many women also rue the political leaders that came to power after Saddam was overthrown and the growing social conservatism that has diminished their role in public life.

Once at the vanguard of women's rights in the region, Iraq ranked 21st out of 22 Arab states in a poll of 336 gender experts released on Tuesday by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The survey, conducted in August and September, asked questions about violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards a woman's role in politics and the economy.


Ibtisam, 40, was injured by an iron bar as she fled shelling in the U.S.-led invasion and was forced to have her uterus surgically removed. During the sectarian carnage that followed, a militant group kidnapped her husband and killed him.

"If the 2003 war had not taken place... at least my husband would be still alive and I would not live in such humiliating circumstances," said Ibtisam, who now works on date farms near her home in eastern Baghdad to provide for her two young daughters.

The first piece of legislation Iraq's new leaders sought to change was the personal status law, which enshrines women's rights regarding marriage, inheritance, polygamy and child custody, and has often been held up as the most "progressive" in the Middle East.

Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said women were often used symbolically to reject the previous political order.

"There has been this increase towards greater social conservatism where women are concerned," said Al-Ali, who co-authored the book "What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq".

"I think one has to understand that in a context of reacting against the previous regime and also reacting against Western imperialism. Overall, it has been devastating."

Güncelleme Tarihi: 12 Kasım 2013, 10:10