BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next, facts about rape. Recently, Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post laying out reasons for the US to support the Syrian resistance and oppose the Syrian government. Among them, he described, quote, “The widespread and deliberate use of rape and other sexual violence as weapons of war.”
Lauren Wolfe is the director of the Women Under Siege Project, which has curated a map plotting cases of sexual violence in Syria. After reading the senator’s claim in The Post, she wrote an article about trying to verify his assertions of widespread rape. It was a strange thing to do, publicly casting doubt on assertions that support your cause, but she concluded that ultimately credibility is more important.
LAUREN WOLFE: To me, it actually reminds me of the weapons of mass destruction controversy. If you're going to be saying there’s widespread human rights abuses, sexual violence and then it turns out not to be the case and in the meantime that’s how we’ve built up the premise of getting involved in a foreign war, we should be very careful at the beginning when we start saying these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you aren’t saying that rape isn’t going on. You know that rape is going on. It’s just a different thing from the widespread and deliberate use of rape and other sexual violence as weapons of war.
LAUREN WOLFE: Right. And part of the reason my project was founded – it was founded by Gloria Steinem because she wanted to understand better how rape is literally used as a weapon of war in each conflict. And if you understand it’s being used to gain information about combatants who are related to these women, if you understand that it’s being used for ethnic cleansing in order to forcibly impregnate women, as they were in Bosnia, sometimes it’s used for humiliation, just a means of terrorizing a population, once you have a better grasp on why it’s being used, then perhaps you can intercede.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what do you know about Syria? Why did the red flag go up?
LAUREN WOLFE: From what we’re seeing, there are rapes of women at checkpoints where cars come to a checkpoint, the police enter, pull out the men, enter the car and rape the women. We’re also hearing about rape in detention. The third way that we’ve heard about is through a mass incident. Say there’s a bombing by the army, then the Shabiya, the plainclothes military forces, come in, loot the houses and rape the women. And we’ve heard multiple instances of this happening.
And in fact, when we’re mapping these instances, I have to stop sometimes and say, you know what, this report sounds a lot like that report that we already have. And it’s the kind of thing where you’re in an echo chamber and you’re trying to sort out what’s what. Information is coming out but it’s coming out with agendas attached to it. And there’s nothing more propagandistic than saying, you know what? The opposing side is brutalizing our women. What we have to do is try to triangulate and verify. So I’m working with Physicians for Human Rights and a team of epidemiologists at Columbia. What we’re doing is marking down all the reports as unverified, and the hope is as things calm down, we’ll be able to figure out which ones might have happened and which ones were really just false.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you worried that you're undercutting your own advocacy?
LAUREN WOLFE: Yes. And, in fact, I debated whether to publish this piece at all. I wrote it in a, a fit of frustration [LAUGHS].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you been criticized?
LAUREN WOLFE: Yes. We’ve gotten a couple of emails and comments. I believe they’re Syrians, they’re activists, and they say, you know, you're casting doubt at a moment that it’s not necessary to do so. You should be sending support. They only want us to be criticizing the Syrian army.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s particularly hard to track and map rape, isn’t it, because the victims are often unwilling to tell you about it?
LAUREN WOLFE: They have so many reasons to not come forward. In places like the Middle East, you’re not just shunned; you're disowned by your whole family. What reason would you have to come forward, especially when there’s no justice to be had? But when a woman does, there’s probably ten more behind her who found all those reasons not to come forward and didn’t. So it really is important that each time we get a report like this, we can draw from it that there’s a real underreporting problem. So what’s interesting in reporting Syria is you're balancing that with the possibility of overreporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about Women Under Siege’s map.
LAUREN WOLFE: We put together a team of epidemiologists, Syrian activists, and what we’ve done is put it out to the world, with different ways that people can report. They can come directly to the site, fill out a form. They can email us or they can use a, a Twitter hashtag - #RapeinSyria#. What it’s doing is it’s tracking perpetrators, so we have it broken down by is it the Shabiya, is it the government forces, nongovernment, what kinds of acts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you're talking to reporters who cover this issue, where do they get their information?
LAUREN WOLFE: Most of them are getting them the way we are, in our project, which is really second hand and third hand. It can make for a nightmare of verification. I’ve talked to people at, at major news outlets who say, you know, we’re running with this, but we really can’t know. And I say, well, I have the luxury of write – writing it on this map I have and marking it unverified. You don’t. So we go back and forth and we share stories and we try to understand the basics of, you know, does this fit into a particular pattern, can we weed this out? But I, I feel for them. It’s an extremely difficult thing to have to put your news organization’s name on, when it really could just be rumor or propaganda or lies.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
LAUREN WOLFE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, part of the Women’s Media Center.