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Syria has become a terrible place to be a woman

Violence against women has skyrocketed since the Syrian conflict began.

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(Illustration by Kyle Kim/GlobalPost, photographs by/AFP/Getty Images)

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ALEPPO, Syria and ANTAKYA, Turkey — Nawar refuses to be seen as a victim. Even when describing how Syrian soldiers tortured and assaulted her, she remains tough and outspoken. Sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop in Antakya, she spoke unashamedly, with anger rather than fear while she smoked a chain of cigarettes.

“For me, speaking out is about revenge. Revenge has become an obsession,” she said.

Violence against women has skyrocketed since the Syrian conflict began. Incidents of gang rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse have risen with the intensity of the conflict, both throughout the country and in refugee camps across the region. This means horrific stories like Nawar's are becoming tragically common.

In April last year, Nawar and her fiancé Ahmed, referred to by first name only to protect their identities, were captured at a checkpoint in the Syrian province of Latakia by government troops. They were pulled from the car, thrown to the ground and tied with rope. One month later Nawar was released alone after experiencing what she describes as excruciating torture and sexual abuse while her fiancé was forced to watch. Ahmed was a doctor whose crime had been treating and delivering medical supplies to Syrian rebel fighters.

“They put us facing each other. When they questioned him, they hit me. When they questioned me, they would hit him,” she said, describing her initial interrogation in a basement four floors underground at the Syrian air force intelligence detention center in Latakia.

She continued, “They removed my clothes in front of him. Then they removed his clothes….”

Nawar’s words trailed off as she puffed vigorously on her cigarette.

She went on to describe further torture over the following three weeks. “They pissed on me. They pulled out seven of my teeth,” she said showing the crowns that have now replaced them. “Then for one week there was nothing, and then they released me. I didn’t find out they had already killed Ahmed until some weeks later.”

In Syria, speaking out about sexual violence carries a stigma that can lead to divorce, rejection, further abuse at home and, in extreme cases, even honor killing by family members. In a culture where virginity is closely linked to honor — not only that of the victim but also the perceived honor of her family — most victims of rape are overwhelmed by shame and deny the abuse.

“No one else will speak out, so I will speak for all of them,” Nawar said. Since her ordeal, Nawar has met with almost 100 female refugees in Jordon, Lebanon and Turkey who have also been victims of violence or sexual assault since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

In a report released in May, the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights listed 2,441 deaths from torture inside government prisons between the beginning of the revolution in March 2011 and May 15, 2013. Among the tally were 82 children and 24 women. The report included names and locations of each death, and in many cases photos, video evidence or testimony from fellow inmates or family members who received the bodies.

In their most recent figures, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 6,500 women still being detained in Syrian prisons, and more than 5,000 incidents of rape during the course of the conflict. On Monday, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Group, an umbrella organization comprised of dozens of human rights groups and institutions, released a report characterizing violence against women as a "bleeding wound in the Syrian conflict."

Gauging the true extent of abuse against both women and men in Syria is almost impossible. For many, facing the consequences of speaking out can be just as devastating as the crime itself.

“One girl I know in Latakia jumped from the fifth floor after she was raped,” said Nawar. “Many of the girls