7 December 2022

The Lasting Effects of Sexual Violence in Conflict

In our last blog, we talked about the effects of torture on human beings and the myths we believe about torture because of the entertainment we consume as a global society. People  consume depictions of violence and human suffering at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, and our consumption of that media shapes our understanding of its reality. 

Depictions of violence and torture in entertainment are sensationalised and prevalent but fail to show its lasting effects on survivors. There is another form of politically weaponised violence that is thankfully less prevalent in entertainment: conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Sexual violence in the context of conflict has been commonplace in war throughout history. It continues to be present in wars and political conflicts around the world today. Briefly explained, CRSV is any form of sexual violence that occurs in the context of war or geopolitical conflict. It is currently a problem in several countries around the world, including Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, Yemen, and Sudan.

The severity of CRSV can range from insults and language threatening sexual assault to forced nudity, groping, and rape. It can also include being forced to witness the sexual assault of another person. Any experiences across this spectrum are deeply traumatic to the person living through the experience and profoundly affect their lives for years to come. Verbal sexual assaults can make a person fearful, withdrawn, and anxious, continually in fear for their safety. Conflict-related sexual assaults often cause physical damage that permanently harms a person’s ability to live a normal life due to things like scarring, incontinence, and impotence. It also leaves mental and emotional scars that can prevent a person from deeply connecting with a partner, making intimacy difficult or even impossible. 

All of these physical and emotional outcomes contribute to shame and stigma. The injuries and effects of sexual violence affect deeply personal aspects of a person's physical health, subjects that many healthy people struggle to discuss with their partners or doctors. Personal shame and social stigma significantly reduce survivors' willingness and capacity to share these deeply personal problems with partners and physicians. Shame and stigma also prevent people who have experienced sexual violence from engaging a counsellor or psychosocial support worker to help them process their trauma and deal with their shame and self-stigmatisation as well as social stigma and isolation from their community. 

Due to the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence, particularly CRSV, it receives little attention in news stories, and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. People in positions of power who use sexual violence as a weapon of war do so with impunity due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms available to prosecute them for their crimes. This impunity exists because we, as a global community, lack the public and political will to enforce change on a scale that would deter future perpetrators from committing such horrific crimes.

But this can change through meaningful, trauma-informed engagement. Synergy for Justice is supporting our partners working to document sexual violence cases from the Syrian conflict and submit them to international justice actors pursuing prosecutions under universal jurisdiction. We have recently seen a successful conviction of a Syrian intelligence officer for crimes against humanity, including conflict-related sexual violence. 

Amal Al Nasin, founder of Amal Healing and Advocacy Centre, one of our key partners in this work, says, 

“We try as much as we can to empower survivors to be part of society. Society is never easy on them. … We need to involve women in this process. We are raising awareness of women, we are talking about reparation, we are talking about institutional reform, and women should be involved in this process through committees, through talking about all the violations they were subjected to. … we need to involve women in this justice and raise their voices until the decision-makers can hear them. Syrian women must be leaders to change and make a difference.” 

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16 November 2022

What is torture? 

We often see it acted out in movies, where the hero is captured and tortured for information before eventually escaping. In movies and TV shows, heroes who are tortured are incredibly resilient. They endure enormous amounts of suffering and are still able to maintain their physical strength as well as their sanity. We rarely see the lasting effects of torture in the stories we consume.

We know that this is an unrealistic picture of torture. We know that it has lasting physical, mental, emotional, and social effects on a person’s quality of life. 

Instead of giving a legal or technical definition of torture, today, we want to define torture by its lasting effects on human beings. 

Torture physically damages the bodies of people in ways that are often unrepairable. Beatings can leave scars that can never be erased. Bones that are broken and not adequately treated are permanently damaged. Malnutrition from starvation diets or unsanitary food weakens the digestive system, the immune system, and the entire body. Psychological torture, including exposure to extreme noise, placement in solitary confinement, or witnessing of torture or execution of others, can also impact overall health and leave lasting effects. 

Many survivors suffer from the psychological and emotional effects of torture long after it ends. Sleep deprivation and the anxiety and fear resulting from torture often leave survivors unable to rest or sleep. Many suffer from a need to constantly be alert and vigilant, ready to flee or fight at a moment’s notice. Shame, self-stigmatisation and deeply entrenched trauma lead some survivors to engage in self-harm and suicidal behaviours. 

There are also social consequences for survivors of torture. Survivors of torture are often stigmatised and excluded from their families and religious and social activities in their communities. They are often marginalised and prevented from obtaining jobs in the community. In Syria, women survivors are often forced to stay at home to avoid bringing further attention and shame to their families. This further isolation intensifies the mental and emotional distress of their trauma. 

Without access to medical and mental health care and social interventions in their communities, women’s chances of recovering and returning to a normal life are limited. For many survivors of torture in Syria, their stories have no happy ending.

But there is hope. Synergy is working with local partners in Syria to ensure women have access to the care they need to recover and to engage with their communities to help them process the trauma of war and conflict and learn how to care for survivors. 

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7 October 2022

Why We are Working in Syria

In Syria and many other countries worldwide, governments and criminal organisations use arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence with impunity to destroy their opponents’ will to resist and remain in power. These tactics aim to destroy the will and capacity of people to oppose their oppressors. These grave human rights violations devastate women, men, children, and communities.

Survivors of sexual violence are heavily stigmatised in most communities around the world. However, there is a lack of awareness globally of what stigma is and how it affects survivors. 

Stigmatisation and ostracism of torture and sexual violence survivors can break family bonds, divide communities, and drive additional conflict resulting in gender-specific violence at the community level.

Women and girls face extraordinary barriers to disclosing their experiences and seeking justice for their attackers. Men who experience torture and sexual violence often fail to report it due to the stigma associated with being a victim. For both men and women, failure to report their cases reduces their access to medical and mental health services as well as social support services. 

Global experts estimate that less than twenty per cent of violent sexual crimes are reported worldwide. Several factors contribute to underreporting, but survivors’ negative experiences within justice systems and nominal conviction rates for perpetrators are primary factors. The stigma associated with sexual violence is embedded in all layers of the justice system, causing unintended harm to survivors and preventing the successful prosecution of perpetrators. Sadly, estimates indicate that less than two per cent of reported cases result in a conviction. Conviction and reporting numbers in countries with developing justice systems or countries where sexual violence is weaponized during conflict are considerably lower. 

Survivors of torture and sexual violence need opportunities to disclose their experiences safely, document their cases, and receive access to medical care, mental health services, and social support systems. 

On a broader scale, failure to disclose cases of torture and conflict-related sexual violence results in greater impunity for oppressive regimes and the individuals who engage in these horrific violations of human rights. Most criminal justice systems fail to deliver predictable and rigorous justice outcomes due to ineffective handling of torture and sexual violence cases by justice actors resulting in increased impunity, emboldening perpetrators continued use of these inhuman tactics.

Much of the narrative surrounding human rights violations in Syria has focused on men’s experiences, and men dominate the social spaces where justice and potential political solutions are discussed. Women’s experiences and voices have been marginalized and occasionally tokenized. There is a considerable need to amplify the voices and experiences of women to ensure that their leadership is recognized and they can contribute to accountability processes and political solutions.

Synergy works with Syrian organizations and communities to end impunity for arbitrary detention, torture, and weaponized sexual violence. We also work with our partners, Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights and Amal’s Healing and Advocacy Center to support the recovery of survivors and communities affected by these horrific human rights violations.

19 July 2022

We are excited to share our first annual report. Synergy for Justice is almost seven years old. We are proud of what we have accomplished this year and deeply grateful for our partner organisations and funders for making it all possible.

Read the full report here.

10 March 2022

Through sustained partnership and long-term continuity, Synergy for Justice and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR), a Syrian NGO with unique and considerable expertise, have created life-changing, sustainable impact for survivors of torture, sexual violence, and other human rights violations in Syria. With continuous funding from the UK Government and the guidance and support from Synergy, LDHR has flourished and expanded its programming to assist survivors of torture and sexual violence not only in seeking justice but also in dealing with stigma, and healing and rehabilitating within communities affected by a decade of conflict. This partnership has successfully localised expertise in the Syrian context, serving the needs of a wide range of participants and stakeholders. Read the full report here.

5 February 2022

Synergy for Justice (Synergy) and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) recently held the third week of multi-disciplinary training for a group of Syrian doctors who will document torture and sexual violence (SV) in accordance with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also known as the “Istanbul Protocol.” During this practical, hands-on week, the doctors practiced conducting forensic medical exams in real time with actors playing the roles of survivors of torture and sexual violence. Doctors had the opportunity to use the skills gained during the first two weeks of training by conducting mock exams under the supervision of both international and Syrian experts.

The doctors shared that they were inspired by the recent conviction of Anwar Raslan in Koblenz, Germany. LDHR’s documentation and joint report with Synergy on male sexual violence was read into the official record in the Koblenz Court to solidify the charges of sexual assault, of which Raslan was ultimately convicted, among other crimes, including murder and crimes against humanity.

Now that the doctors have completed the third week of training, they will conduct forensic medical documentation that advances accountability and ultimately reduces impunity for international crimes and grave human rights violations occurring in Syria. Participating lawyers built a solid foundation to use this compelling evidence in case building and prosecution of perpetrators of torture and SV. Following the 5-day training week, both lawyers and doctors practiced their skills in a 2-day supplemental Moot Court organised by LDHR and Synergy.  Forensic medical reports documenting the torture and SV that is ongoing in Syria have been accepted by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria as well by European courts asserting universal jurisdiction.

23 November 2021

Synergy for Justice (Synergy) and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) recently held the second week of multi-disciplinary training for a group of Syrian doctors who are learning to document torture and sexual violence in accordance with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also known as the “Istanbul Protocol.” Doctors are learning how to interact sensitively with survivors, respond to their needs in survivor-centric ways, identify and describe sequelae of torture and sexual violence (SV) in medical-legal affidavits, assess mental status, and much more during a series of week-long training sessions led by Synergy and LDHR experts. After completing the third week of training, doctors will be able to conduct forensic medical documentation that advances accountability and ultimately reduces impunity for international crimes and grave human rights violations. Attorneys are also participating in the training weeks in order to learn how to use this compelling evidence in case building and prosecution of perpetrators of torture and SV. Forensic medical reports documenting the torture and SV that is ongoing in Syria have been accepted by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria as well by European courts asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction. 

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