Are Women Being Targeted in Syria?

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


A 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).

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."

He also points out that the areas with greater deaths of women and girls appear to correlate to where there have been more media reports of paramilitary, or shabiha, activity. In Homs, Syria Tracker has found, the percentage of women and girls reportedly killed since the start of the war is at nearly 40 percent, compared to the 9 percent average across the country. A woman, in their estimation, is 10 times more likely to die a violent death in Homs than in Damascus.

This violence against women in Homs corresponds to the data we have gathered at the project I direct at the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege, which is mapping how sexualized violence is being utilized in Syria. Our data show higher levels of sexual assaults in Homs than any other city in Syria, with 35 percent of our total reports taking place there. Also, 70 percent of Syria Tracker's recorded female deaths by beatings and stabbings happened in Homs, the majority in May 2012.

Around 60 percent of Syria Tracker's thousands of reports have at least one video or picture. Over 85 percent have a name of a victim. All have a location of the attack, down to the neighborhood or county. All have an exact date and are corroborated by at least one other source. Over 80 percent of the reports have context about what happened, describing whether an individual death was part of a massacre or something else. Which is to say that this documentation could help toward the assemblage of evidence for potential prosecutions.

Dr. Sandro Galea, chair of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health's department of epidemiology, said he considers crowdsourcing like Syria Tracker's an "innovative approach that can be used for surveillance during wars or in unstable situations."

Regardless, this kind of human rights data gathering has amassed its share of criticism, the gist of it being that there is no way to know what portion of the overall violence you're collecting.

"Those reports are important and useful as case studies, but any analysis of that observed data must also take into account what has not been reported -- when and where might violence be happening that is not witnessed by anyone or is witnessed by individuals who do not feel comfortable reporting the violence?" says Megan Price, a statistician with the human rights program at Benetech, a Palo Alto, California-based nonprofit technology organization that has done humanitarian data gathering from Guatemala to East Timor. The data, she says, are more supportive of qualitative conclusions and specific contextual details rather than aggregate conclusions about patterns.

The head of Syria Tracker agrees. "Imagine if after every single massacre you could interview every single person -- that would be great," he says. "But you can't do that." There's bias in the data collection in a statistical sense, he freely admits. Who can get on the Internet? Who then knows about Syria Tracker and feels comfortable using it? But trying to gather reports of killings in a hot war is not about looking for the needle in the haystack. Rather, he says, it is about modeling the haystack. What does the warzone look like? In this case, what does life -- and death -- look like for civilians stuck inside Syria?

We can't conclude from Syria Tracker's data whether the 9 percent of female deaths represents the proportion of women killed in the overall conflict or just the proportion of those reported to Syria Tracker. But we do know that civilians are dying and that "the price Syrian women and families are paying is often invisible," says Dr. Karestan Koenen, associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the lead epidemiologist on WMC's mapping project. "Every woman who dies is a sister, mother, wife, or daughter, and her death leaves a gaping hole in her family and erodes Syrian culture, which is based on extended family structures."

We don't have time to wait, she says, to gather the stories of Syria's war, to collect information about human lives, which are disappearing day by day into the rubble. "Academics can sit around and argue methods, but meanwhile people are dying and journalists are left to rely on very little," says Koenen. "Is it really the case that we can't make any conclusions? Or do we, with appropriate caveats, have a moral obligation to try?"