Violence begets violence. Nowhere will this be clearer than in Aleppo, where the recent bombings of rebel-held areas by the Syrian regime have led to the systematic killing and abuse of innocent and helpless women and children.
Violence against women and children is nothing new. Historically, these groups are the first to suffer in conflict; gender-based violence is rooted in sexual inequality and serves to maintain an unequal balance of power. In some situations, perpetrators use violence as a form of subordination, to justify their acts as appropriate forms of punishment. Subordinating and punishing women and children is also a significant tool in applying psychological pain to the men associated with them. As such, women and youth can represent the idea of state, family or tribe, and are used as a means of punishment for so-called crimes they have committed only by association.
Until 2002, when the World Health Organization (WHO) published its first report on global violence and health, violence against women was thought to be an “insignificant form of collateral damage” resulting from war. The WHO holds that violence, in both definition and typology, is the intentional use of physical force. Worryingly, the threats, intimidation and degradation that are obvious nonphysical consequences of violence, and largely compromise the well-being of individuals, families and communities, are less examined.
Also neglected is the concept of reciprocal violence. Studies show that violent extremism flourishes in areas where violence becomes the norm because no viable alternatives exist for victims. Our research in this area has found that the two groups most susceptible to violent radicalization following conflict are women and children. For women, conflict increases the risk that they will fall victim to human trafficking, forced labor or sexual violence – providing fertile ground for radicalization, particularly when there is a palpable lack of aid to help victims. At times, radicalization can be brought about by exhaustion with political institutions and through a lack of services, which can instead be provided by extremist groups.
For example, Hezbollah has a large social development wing with medical services provided to members – as exemplified during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, when the group provided water supplies to civilians while the Lebanese state was incapable of doing so. Overall, the provision of services such as education, basic needs and protection can solidify an individual’s incentive to engage with an extremist group. At times of severe vulnerability, people on the receiving end of such services can become so indebted to these providers of aid that they become completely embroiled in the movement. Political exhaustion, alienation, torture and abuse can cause people to hate the incumbent government so much that they would be willing to die or commit reciprocal acts of violence to overthrow it.
In east Aleppo, violence against Bashar al-Assad’s regime through Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (an al-Qaida offshoot) has helped the group develop strong and popular networks of support within local communities. The terrorist organization has become a provider of security where the regime has failed, thus boosting its recruitment. It has even managed to recruit people outside Syria and Iraq thanks to its promise to protect vulnerable Sunni communities and their women and children. In fact, the group has been so effective in this “protection narrative” that many of those disillusioned with ISIS’ violence against fellow Sunnis have joined it.
The growth in the number of unaccompanied children following conflict – particularly orphans looking for a safe haven – increases the risk that they will be radicalized and employed for violent purposes. In Syria, families have become normalized to violence over five years. It is all they have known, and it has become to them a legitimate form of expression at the expense of non-violent means.
For children in Syria, the civil war has had a devastating impact on education. By the end of September 2015, more than one-quarter of all schools in the country had been either damaged or destroyed; an estimated 2 million people had been internally displaced and 700,000 refugee children were out of school. This is in line with experience from previous wars, where the right to education, following the collapse of public institutions, becomes a luxury confined to those children who are enrolled in militias. This can increase the risk that children will turn to alternative and available extremist educational content, becoming indoctrinated into a lifetime of violent thought and ideology.
Women and children are obviously crucial in the formation of the next generation: women in the role of mothers, passing on ideas to their offspring, and children as a future market of soldiers, fighters and extremists. Ironically, extremist groups have recognized this and continue to prey on it, both in their recruitment strategies and retention efforts. We must open our eyes to the paradigm of accepting violence in these situations and create a new norm for protection in conflict. Children and women continue to be tortured, abused, detained and trafficked. This has to stop. Priority must be given to help women and children in need in Aleppo, with provisions for trauma processing, social and mental healthcare, education and protection facilities.
Let us act before the gap widens, as far as the eye can see.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls Hub.