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20 February 2015

medica mondiale takes part in Syrian-Iraqi activist conference in Istanbul

"I don't want to be labelled a victim," said one of the 32 female activists from Syria and Iraq who gathered in Istanbul for a conference from January 26-28, 2015. The published aim of the conference was to bring an end to the use of sexualised violence as a weapon in conflicts in the region of Syria/Iraq: “Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflicts – Levant Women’s Meeting.” The women activists who attended are determined, strong and expectant. They make their voice heard where others are silent. And they are actively upholding human rights where many international organisations dare not go.

The three-day event was organised by WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) and MADRE, with funding from the British Foreign Ministry. The participants were overwhelmingly female and included many journalists, lawyers and doctors. They are working in ISIL (Islamic State) or in government-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, as well as across the borders in Turkey or Lebanon. At times with very real danger to their life, every day they document crimes of violence in order to be able to pursue justice at a later date. For anyone who grew up in a secure country, it is impossible to imagine the conditions they are working under, even after years of reports and images from Syria and Iraq on our monitors and TV screens.

“Weapons don't grow on trees!” – Western interests foment conflict, crisis and war

Travelling to Istanbul involved significant risk for many of the activists but it was extremely important to them to take part in the conference. They wanted to report their experiences and draw up demands for the international community. At the end of the conference, embassy representatives from a range of countries were presented with the results.

The participants analysed the causes of conflicts in Iraq and Syria. According to this analysis, particular significance lays in the political vacuum which helped militant groups like ISIL come to power. Years of occupation and colonial intervention by the USA and other Western powers created this vacuum. By emphasising categories such as religion and ethnicity, the occupation led to divisions in the country. Processes of radicalisation were set in motion. Conflicts stoked in this way in turn fostered  human rights violations against women in strongly patriarchal social systems. For this reason, the activists are demanding political solutions from the international community in addition to financial assistance. One such measure would be a ban on arms imports since, as one Syrian journalist put it: “Weapons don't grow on trees – they are carried across borders!” And the West plays a decisive role here.

Syria-Iraq crisis destroying the healthcare sector: Short-term aid does not provide a long-term solution!

The human rights activists are also calling for investment in the healthcare sector. One woman reported on the situation in Syria, claiming that the government and the terrorist organisations were both a hazard to the general population. The government is systematically killing its citizens and destroying the healthcare system. Of the 5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 3 million are not receiving any. Additionally, the activists criticise the short-term aid provided by international organisations. Long-term effectivity is lacking, with, for example, no provision for payment of salaries to local healthcare professionals. The last working hospital in Aleppo is threatened by closure since there is no money to pay wages and operational costs amounting to some 70,000 dollars per month.

Numerous rapes and other cases of violence against women – Few offers of psychosocial assistance

The participants at the conference were very interested in hearing the experiences of medica mondiale, as reported by Karin Griese, Head of the Trauma Work department. In a workshop held by medica mondiale, they could share their experiences and knowledge relating to the various opportunities and challenges of carrying out psychosocial work in war and conflict areas. For example, the activists are using new media opportunities such as WhatsApp and facebook to contact women living in occupied areas. These provide a useful alternative to telephone hotlines, which are also in operation. Nonetheless, the women emphasised how little psychosocial assistance and expertise was available. They described an enormous need for expert training for activists and healthcare professionals. Specialist staff, secure spaces for survivors, and long-term psychosocial support are needed more than one-off counselling sessions. In the refugee camps, too, there is a lack of psychosocial support and preventive measures. One activist described the situation to the representatives of the embassy as follows: "We know that you are unable to do anything in the occupied areas at present. However, surely you can prevent women being raped in the refugee camps run by UNHCR!"

Stigmatisation of rape: A huge problem for survivors and aid organisations

One of the causes behind the lack of offers of support named by some activists is the strong social stigmatisation of sexualised violence, which carries over to related offers of help. Existing government support for survivors of sexualised violence can actually lead to additional stigmatisation since they often involve checking the virginity of women and do not provide psychosocial assistance. Nonetheless, one female human rights activist reported on a case of success involving excellent support from a Yazidi community for several survivors of sexualised violence in spite of the stigmatisation commonly found there. The community was able and willing to accept them back. A further obstacle to the establishment of psychosocial services is the fact that Syria only grants official work permits to psychiatrists and not to psychologists, so the latter have to work without legal protection.

Activists and counsellors need reinforcement and support for their self-care to protect their capacities

This exchange with women active in the region also demonstrated the need for psychosocial support for the activists themselves. On the second evening of the conference, medica mondiale held a session on self-care designed to help the women strengthen their own capacity to help. Afterwards the participants expressed their desire to have ideas for self-care which they can use in their everyday routines. The aim is to ensure that in the long term they are able to continue performing their important work, which bears a lot of risks and exposes them to a great deal of traumatisation.

These activists deserve our respect and we should support them as much as possible since their expertise and selflessness is needed every day if we want to see human rights upheld and to achieve peace.