WASHINGTON Government forces in Syria are targeting women for rape and assault as the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces continues to escalate, according to a report released by a human rights group on Wednesday.
Women Under Siege said it had documented 81 instances of sexual assault in Syria since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011, with most occurring in the rebel stronghold of Homs, a frequent target of attack by government forces.
Lauren Wolfe, director of the group, said it was clear from the reports gathered through human rights groups on the ground, witness statements and the media that Syrian woman are gang-raped or assaulted as a tactic of war.
"The easy conclusion to draw is that things have really deteriorated to a state of almost animalism," Wolfe told Reuters in an interview. "They are really taking women down to a level where they aren't really human. It is just another battleground on which the war is being fought."
Syria's uprising erupted almost 19 months ago in the western city of Homs and has morphed into a nationwide crisis that has killed more than 17,000 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assad's government says it is fighting foreign-backed insurgents and that more than 2,600 members of the security forces have also died in the violence.
Wolfe said that while there was no evidence of the government ordering its militiamen to attack or rape, almost 67 percent of the reported assaults were allegedly carried out by government and shabiha - plainclothes militia - forces.
There is also evidence from the reports that the victims targeted are related to the Free Syrian Army, the country's main armed opposition group, and are likely targeted to punish the rebels, she said.
"We've heard reports of soldiers coming into a house or shabiha forces coming into a house and looking for ... a male member who is supposedly part of the rebellion forces and then they rape the woman," Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the group found no reports of members of the Free Syrian Army attacking women, but she could not say with certainty that rebels have not also engaged in sexual assaults because many attacks go unreported.
The authors of the report were unable to independently verify most of the cases or create a total victim count, as many of the reports cited villages being attacked without providing context on the number of victims.
Despite being unable to pin down exact national numbers, Wolfe said the team's findings are still accurate at least anecdotally because of the bulk of third-party reports funneling out of Syria.
Rape and sexual violence carry a significant stigma in the Middle East where an attack can shame an entire family. Even when raped, women are at times punished for sexual indiscretions and have been forced to marry their rapist.
At least 20 percent of the women included in the report were killed after the assault; a tactic often used in crises zones to show complete control over an enemy.
"It is the ultimate brutality to use a women's body and then disregard it," she said.
Some rape reports were discredited by the team during a verification process because the woman's accent did not match the area she purported to be from. In one instance, a woman claimed she was reporting the attack from inside a Syrian jail - a feat Wolfe said was highly unlikely.
Women Under Siege, a project of the Women's Media Center, was founded in 2012 by Wolfe and Gloria Steinem to shed light on the use of rape as a tool of war and push governments to intervene during gender-based conflicts. Steinem is a U.S. journalist and women's rights activist.
(Reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Paul Simao)