Are Women Being Targeted in Syria?

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The exhaustive attempt to track and catalogue war crimes by the Assad regime 

RTR39MQ3-615.jpgA Syrian rebel talks to a woman during a patrol to search for pro-government forces. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

The baby's body was found near a checkpoint on the road that connects Homs with the ancient city of Palmyra, in central Syria, in January. At four months old, she was said to have been given over to a paternal uncle, dead, with bruises on her back, abdomen, and hands. Her parents were missing -- the family had gone to the coastal city of Tartus 16 days before, according to a video that shows her lifeless. Male voices on the video accuse Bashar al-Assad's security forces of torturing and killing the infant after she was arrested along with her family.

We don't know what really happened, whether her death was intentional or a byproduct of war. We don't know who the perpetrators were for sure. But we do know that this baby is one of the many that has died in Syria's ongoing conflict. And we know that no matter how many bodies we count, or don't, that she is a civilian, one of many documented to have been killed in more than 20 months of fighting.

Nearly a year ago, the United Nations gave up on keeping track of Syria's dead. Over the summer, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. That means intentional attacks on civilians are now officially considered war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The question then becomes: How will we know what to prosecute when the fighting dies down if we don't keep track of crimes against civilians, which are, in most cases, women and children?

That's where various groups of citizen journalists and social scientists come in. One such crowdsourcing effort, called Syria Tracker, has documented more than 36,000 killings from multiple types of sources as of mid-October, including the above story about the baby killed. I will keep the names of those who run Syria Tracker, which is run by high-level social scientists, anonymous out of respect for their safety. Groups doing this kind of work have already been threatened. But their painstaking documentation, cited by USAID, can potentially tell us a great deal about what may be happening to Syria's civilians.

One way that Syria Tracker has broken down its catalogue of deaths is by gender. On average, according to the group, about 9 percent of the documented killings across Syria are of women, who are unlikely to have picked up arms in the conflict, and girls, who are inherently noncombatants. That means that, at minimum, nearly one casualty in 10 is likely a civilian, their statistics show. These women and girls are being killed in various ways -- everything from stabbing to shelling to gunshots -- many of which may be considered prosecutable internationally. "When Syrian armed forces have used indiscriminate air bombardment or artillery to attack civilian areas, these are war crimes," said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Syria Tracker reports contain a higher proportion of women killed since February, the group says, when there was a renewed attack on Homs. This spike has not subsided since the agreed-upon ceasefire in October. "Government forces now routinely bomb and shell towns and villages using battlefield weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets, knowing that the victims of such indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians," Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, said in September .

Beyond bombs, however, which make up 44 percent of Syria Tracker's documented killings of women and girls (vs. 23 percent for men), the group has found that the lead causes of deaths of females break down as such: 14 percent gunshot wound (vs. 31 percent for men), 5 percent shot by sniper (vs. 4 percent for men), and 3 percent "slaughtered," which, Syria Tracker told me, means "beaten or stabbed, something up close and personal" (vs. 1 percent for men).

About 9 percent of the documented killings across Syria are of women and girls.

Does this indicate the targeting of civilians? We don't know -- Are women caught in crossfire not meant for them? But it certainly begs the question. The head of Syria Tracker certainly thinks it does. "In places where you have massacres, where the military or shabiha [plainclothes militia forces] have gone in and massacred people, there's definite evidence of targeting, such as in Homs," says the group's founder, who is an epidemiologist, a physician, and a statistician. "All were hung or all slaughtered, or all were handcuffed and killed the same way. You suddenly have a big spike in one group, like women. It's very methodological. These people knew what they were doing when they went in."

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Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at laurenmwolfe.com.

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