BEIRUT: Rape and sexual assault are being used as a weapons of war across Syria, several reports have shown, with many of the victims then ostracized from their families and communities, and women rarely have safe spaces in which they can talk through their experiences.
To address this need, the Free Syria Foundation will soon launch the Jasmine Tent program, which has been in the works for over a year.
With over 6.5 million internally displaced persons, many Syrians are living in densely crowded camps, and the first such space will be launched in January in the Atmeh Camp in Idlib, in the northwest of the country.
The Free Syria Foundation, which is partnered with the Local Coordination Committees on the ground, has been identifying female volunteers to staff the tents, including psychotherapists.
The Jasmine Tents will first and foremost serve as safe spaces, where women can come with their children to relax, discuss what they are going through and procure much needed supplies, including food and feminine hygiene products.
“They will be safe spaces, because we hope that nobody will attack them,” explains Rafif Jouejati, the founder and director of Free Syria, and “also a safe space in that they can communicate what they need.”
Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, which monitors rape and sexual violence within conflicts, says that there has been a major lack of safe spaces for women in this conflict.
“Thousands of women are unable to leave their tents or refugee apartments because there are so many very real psychological and physical barriers to living normally right now, whether in the conflict zone of Syria or in the diaspora,” she says. “Depression is rampant and so is a lack of medical care. Women and men need a way to heal.”
Wolfe, who authored the Syria mapping project of rape in the civil war but who is not connected to the Jasmine Tent project, says that access to trained professionals can be crucial for any recovery process.
“Having seen or experienced truly traumatic things in war, women – as well as men – need a way to cope with their trauma. I would also imagine that the simple acknowledgement that women need a safe place to rest and recover will be a help.”
Jouejati is adamant that the project be steered from the ground up and be a grass-roots initiative.
“We want the women to come forward, rather than us telling them what they need,” she says. “It will be about helping to heal wounds, to provide education and to see their requirements.”
She also wants to recruit female staff from a variety of backgrounds, from recent graduates to those who have previously worked in mental health and activists.
“We need this diversity,” she says, for “victims and heroines aren’t from one particular class or area.”
While both men and women have been victims of sexual assault, largely by regime forces, “in the case of women, it is being used as a form of torture. It is a weapon of war, and is being used to destroy the whole family and community,” Jouejati says. “We can’t possibly document all the rape cases.”
To begin to combat how rape is being used as a weapon of war, it is essential to “change the narrative, so it is not such a taboo, and make sure that women are not seen solely as victims.”
Wolfe says it is also essential to at some stage include men in this process.
“They will need to stand up and actively say that women who’ve been raped are not ‘tainted’ and should instead be treated with respect, even as heroes,” she says.
“They are women who’ve sacrificed for their country without being asked to – they have suffered something terrible and deserve to be lifted up. Community and religious leaders can lead the way on this.”
Rape must be seen as a crime in the same way other kind of physical assault are viewed as crimes, Wolfe says.
“There are no women who want to suffer this way. And rape is a crime that affects the fabric of all of society – women, men, families. Once we all accept that, we can change the narrative,” she says.
More than just a space to talk through their experiences, the Jasmine Tents will also offer education and training in leadership.
“Women are more than 50 percent of the population but they have been marginalized in the formal opposition,” Jouejati says. “We need to train women so that they can take on additional responsibilities, post-Assad.”
This education will also have a trickledown effect, she says.
“An educated woman will raise an educated family. We want to empower these women so that they can pass it on.”
As Wolfe adds, “Teaching women a trade or to find her voice will allow her to not only recover but potentially thrive. A healthy Syria will require equal participation of women in all realms – labor, politics, etc. Grass-roots programs like this are potentially key toward securing that positive future society.”
Eventually, it is hoped that Jasmine Tents will be established across the country, and in refugee camps, although Jouejati is doubtful they will be allowed in government-controlled areas.
“The sky’s the limit; we need them everywhere,” Jouejati says.