Rape A 'Significant And Disturbing' Feature Of Syrian War

Syrian women far outnumber men in the refugee camps in neighboring Jordan. A new report by the International Rescue Committee says that gender-based violence in Syria is one of the main causes of women fleeing the country, and that reports of rape and violence against women are on the rise. In a clinic catering to Syrian refugees on the Jordanian border, a psychologist says she is shocked by some of the stories she hears of public rapes and torture.

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A recent report by the International Rescue Committee sheds light on an alarming trend in Syria, a surge in sexual violence. Rape is a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian war, according to the IRC report, which was based on interviews with hundreds of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. The report includes the stories of a 9-year-old girl who was raped and of a father who shot his own daughter to prevent her from being, in his words, shamed. Sheera Frenkel visited a clinic in Jordan that provides counseling for some of these victims. She sent this report.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: In a small apartment on a nondescript street in the Jordanian city of Ramthe, Syrian refugees come to get help. The clinic is run by the International Rescue Committee, and it's a place where Syrian refugees share their stories of horror and war.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) They really raped women and killed children.

FRENKEL: The women in the clinic asked that their identities be kept private to protect themselves and their families. Saher, a 42-year-old mother, comes each week with her 18-month-old baby. She says she fled Syria when soldiers ransacked her home and put a gun to her infant daughter's head.

SAHER: (Through Translator) I told them there was no man in the house, so please don't come in. They pushed me down. I begged for mercy. They started to say bad words, and I began to cry.

FRENKEL: Saher doesn't say what happened next. Instead, she speaks about the traumas of other women in her hometown.

SAHER: (Through Translator) Yes, there was rape, and they would even kidnap a woman if her relative is a defector. They would take his sister or his wife. In Daraa, that really happened.

FRENKEL: Nawall Mohammed is the psychologist who leads the weekly sessions with Saher and others. Previously, she worked with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, but she says she's never heard stories that affected her as much as those from the Syrian refugees.

NAWALL MOHAMMED: I remember a client. He is a man, Syrian man. He said the army, they collect the women, just the women and girls, and they took off their clothes and put them in big cars in the streets in front of their relatives and husbands and brothers naked. So it is like their weapon.

FRENKEL: Nawall says that the women find it easier to share their stories when they can attribute them to other people. Some of the stories are about rape by soldiers or security servicemen. Others are about daily beatings by husbands frustrated that their families have suddenly become refugees. Melanie Megevand oversees the programs for female refugees for the International Rescue Committee. In the IRC's report, the New York-based NGO revealed that women gave sexual violence as a primary reason for fleeing Syria.

MELANIE MEGEVAND: Given the cultural taboos, particularly in the context of the Middle East, it's been extremely telling to hear so many stories of sexual violence occurring and having that being explained by both men and women, including children.

FRENKEL: Saher says that she never thought she would become a refugee, and it scares her to think about what's happening back in her hometown of Daraa. She says she's heard from neighbors that her home has been destroyed. She's thankful that she got her family out in time.

SAHER: (Through Translator) We only have our own dignity. A house is a minor thing, but our dignity is a basic thing. That's the reason that pushed us to come to Jordan.

FRENKEL: She says she hopes to return to Daraa and rebuild one day. For now, she just wants to focus on getting better. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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