“Part of any healing process is talking about the pain,” says Hind Kabawat, a deputy ambassador of the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Geneva and women’s rights activist. “No one wants to bring up sexual violence because it’s too huge and too difficult.”
Syria’s civil war is now in its eighth year. The conflict is unlike any other modern war: the deaths of more than 500,000 people and ensuing refugee crisis have shaken the world’s faith in the international humanitarian law and the existing world order.
Earlier this year, a UN report found that no one has been unaffected by sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian conflict, raising the prospect that an entire generation of Syrians will suffer from the mental and physical scarring caused by such violence.
It is activists such as Ms Hind, however, who are working to break down the stigmas surrounding sexual violence in the hopes of documenting it for future legal battles against figures in the Syrian government and military, and helping communities cope with such trauma.
On the phone from her office in Geneva, Ms Hind says over the years she has trained herself not to cry. “I have to be strong for the women who are still in Syria, the women who need us to be their voices.
“I work with so many women who want to move forward with their lives. It is a duty and an honour to take care of them.”
Ms Hind’s office helps run three community centres in opposition-held Syria that help victims of sexual and gender-based violence through counselling and therapeutic music and art classes. The women she works with also have the opportunity to learn computer skills, English and earn high school diplomas, which help give them back control over their lives.
Around 170 women are enrolled in regular classes, and many more join drop in sessions.
The work is hard – but she is not alone. Ms Hind and the SNC work alongside networks of doctors and lawyers who document the testimony of survivors of rape, torture and other gender-based violence in the hopes the evidence can be used in future international war crimes trials.
There has been little in the way of legal redress for Syrian victims to date. The UN’s ability to prosecute is hampered by the veto power of permanent security council member Russia, a key ally of Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s government.
Case workers are now exploring new avenues such as transitional and universal justice cases, in which the severity of allegations means the accused can be charged and tried in countries other than their own. There has been progress so far in bringing cases against high level Syrian officials in both Spain and Germany.
The initial challenge in such work, however, is getting women to come forward with their stories in an environment which often revictimises survivors of sexual violence.
“We focus on educating women on their rights. We need to try to change stereotyping in the community, to knock down the wall of silence of women and rid them of the social stigma attached to victims,” said one Syrian lawyer who works closely with the UK Foreign Office’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund.
“When a son is detained and then released, society tells the father ‘be proud of him and keep your head high because he was a detainee’. Why not so when the detainee is a woman? She was detained, and she could have done nothing to prevent it. And when she was abused violently outside jail, she was the victim, not the perpetrator. We need to alter the way society views these women.”
Tackling the culture of taboo and stigma is the equally difficult flipside of such accountability work. Ms Hind says she knows of one woman who was raped in a regime prison, and then killed by her father, who wanted to mitigate the family’s shame.
“Educational programmes are the key to changing such attitudes, even if we are currently talking about baby steps,” Ms Hind said.
“The women we work with are so committed to change,” she added.