Women's lives in Syria hang in the balance amid debates by humanitarian organizations. Some of the issues in question include the exact computation of rape victims/survivors, the diagnosis, cause and effect of rape during peacetime versus wartime, combatant-perpetrated rape versus domestic rape, perceived and actual misconceptions and hidden agendas of human rights organizations, etc. Depending on which side of the debate the humanitarian organization is on, they will have a specific agenda on where and how resources should be allocated. Meanwhile, there is a war in Syria and lives hang in the balance.
The controversy of whether women are raped in conflict is not new. During the Libya conflict, top United Nations officials were at loggerheads over whether Qaddafi was using rape as a weapon of war. This debate has resurrected in the midst of the Syrian war. In Libya, rape was not sufficiently documented because of social stigma. So why is it argued that there is a "disproportionate focus" on rape in Syria or that there is "little credible evidence" in support of rape, when reports to the contrary exist?
The Human Security Report Project (HSRP) report of 2012 stated that there is media led exaggeration of combatant-perpetrated sexual violence that ignores the more pervasive domestic sexual violence during wartime. This HSRP report states that domestic sexual violence is not given enough media coverage because it occurs during peacetime and humanitarian agencies, strapped for cash are dissuaded from highlighting domestic rape. They make some interesting points. I am sure there are agencies that overestimate fatalities and those that under-count fatalities. In any event, we must go beyond debates on how to diagnose, separate and treat wartime atrocities with some workable solutions.
Domestic rapes and combatant-perpetrated rape are not easily separate as in some instances, mass rapes continue after the war ends. Rape is generally under-reported during peacetime and more so during wartime; including several years after a war has ended. It is therefore premature to conclude that there are no mass sexual violations in Syria because the data is fragmented. Yet, we cannot afford to do nothing because there are too many variations in the computation of rape! Such an approach leads to the desensitization of rape in Syria.
The first mobile forensic application to assist doctors and nurses in collecting, documenting and preserving court-admissible forensic evidence of mass atrocities including sexual violence and torture has been invented. Perhaps, before the war is over, it could provide revealing data and means to prosecute perpetrators.
In Syria, civilian deaths are difficult to quantify, including rape, which is not always inevitable during wartime. The Syria Tracker, which reports on atrocities as witnessed by civilians using social media, has tracked sexual violations against women even if these are shrouded in silence. In Bosnia, it took years after the war ended for women to break their silence on rape and the same may be true of Syria. All the while, the people of Syria live "between horrible and inhuman."
Indications in refugee camps also point to sexual violations. Unfortunately, denial and depression are not uncommon for victim/survivors of rape during wartime and the protracted nature of investigations curtails the successful prosecution for rape as a war crime, which are becoming increasingly difficult. So when all is said and done, we need to remember that we are dealing with human lives.