By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad
Sexual violence against women in times of war is a crime North and East Syria knows all too well.
The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict was marked by governments and international institutions on June 19. But for women in North and East Syria, the fight to eliminate these egregious crimes is not limited to a single day.
We know that sexual violence in conflict does not exist as a separate phenomenon from other forms of patriarchial oppression. In a society where traditional attitudes already relegate women to second-class status in peacetime and subject them to daily abuse and discrimination, it is all too easy for men to commit systematic atrocities against women in times of war.
The women’s movement in North and East Syria has worked to fight all of the forms of violence that women and girls face.
We have outlawed child marriage, created women’s houses to help victims of domestic violence seek protection and justice, criminalized so-called “honor killings,” and taken other legal measures. We have also ensured women’s equal representation in all political institutions, so that every member of our society knows that women are equal citizens and leaders.
On the battlefield, the women of the YPJ and SDF have fought bravely to free their sisters from ISIS terror. Thanks to their efforts, many captive Yezidi women and girls have been liberated, free to return to their families and rebuild their lives. Young women from conservative backgrounds who join the YPJ have made it clear that they can defend themselves and determine their futures — changing culture as they protect their communities.
We are proud of the international support we have received in our efforts to defeat ISIS. Unfortunately, those same governments are now turning a blind eye to groups that commit ISIS-like atrocities against Syrian women — even offering those groups a say in Syria’s post-war future.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of Afrin. Before Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) invaded, Afrin was one of the safest places to live as a woman in the Middle East. Today, armed groups there regularly kidnap women and girls and subject them to rape, torture, forced marriages, and other crimes.
The United Nations has warned that armed groups in Afrin have been “targeting every aspect of Kurdish women’s lives” in an effort to “dismantle” advances in women’s rights made under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Nadia Murad, who survived ISIS captivity, has warned that the disappearances of Yezidi women there constitute a tactic of ethnic cleansing.
Despite this, no government has taken any steps to end the atrocities. Until a recent video showed several women held in an illegal prison operated by the Hamza Division, an SNA militia known for violations against civilians, providing incontrovertible evidence of these kidnappings, the international community barely acknowledged that they were happening.
These crimes are not isolated incidents. Turkey is a member of NATO and a candidate for membership in the European Union. The Syrian Interim Government, which oversees the SNA, is supported by many Western powers, and is represented in international negotiations on the future of the country. Every government that offers either entity any support or resources is complicit in the horrors they inflict on Syrian women every day.
This is not a situation that the people of North and East Syria will accept. We did not liberate our region from ISIS only to be represented internationally by men who use their power to abuse and assault us like ISIS did. If states wish to end conflict-related sexual violence — and the structures and attitudes that create the conditions for it — they must end their support for Turkey and the SNA, and support the women who have fought to live free from all forms of violence and oppression.