In Syria’s now nearly three-year-old conflict, certain armed extremist opposition groups are imposing strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls that have no basis in Syrian law, Human Rights Watch says in a new study. The findings have been drawn from interviews with 43 refugees from Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan and two in Turkey, conducted late last year. VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke about this new predicament for Syrian women with Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of HRW’s Women’s Rights Division.
Below please find a transcript of the interview. To listen to it, use the audio player below.
Yackee: Could you explain what you found, please?
Gerntholtz: Human Rights Watch has been documenting indiscriminate violations against civilians for almost the entire length of this conflict. And this particular report focuses on a set of violations that we have observed that affect women in areas that are controlled by extremists.
So, what we saw were dress restrictions; women were being forced to veil, to cover their heads, cover their faces. We saw restrictions on mobility; women were not allowed outside of their homes to buy food, to take their children to school, to seek medical care. We saw a range of restrictions that, really on top of the conflict, are having a very significant impact on women’s rights and, of course, their quality of life, such as it is.
Yackee: Is this not a reversal?
Gerntholtz: This is a reversal because, as the report says, these were not restrictions that could be applied in Syria before the conflict. So, this is definitely a roll-back of women’s rights.
Yackee: Is there anything that can be done about it?
Gerntholtz: It’s a very complex situation because certainly these areas are not under government control; they’re not under the control of the opposition such that it is. So these are areas that are really under the control of militia, and under the control of extremists. So we have made a call to them to ask them to uphold human right, to make sure women are able to exercise their human rights, including to be able to travel freely, to seek health care and medical care when they need it. But I guess we’re not particularly optimistic that this is going to change anytime soon.
Yackee: Human Rights Watch has spoken to some women who have been victims of this. Could you please share with us their stories.
Gerntholtz: For me, a particularly sad story was [about] a women who talked about her [female] neighbor who did not have a male relative – I think her husband had been killed in the fighting. And because she had no male relative to accompany her, she was unable to leave during the fighting. Her neighbor told us that the woman and her children had been killed during a bombing. We talked to women who were not able to go out to buy food and the consequences of that for their children. So, [these are] truly a range of really horrendous violations that are happening to women because of these restrictions.
Yackee: What happens to a women when she just ignores all these restrictions and just goes out and does her own thing?
Gerntholtz: We did document retaliations against women and their families if they did not comply with the regulations. We documented women who were detained; we documented some physical abuse of women, we documented victimization of women and their families if women were seen not to comply with the restrictions. So there were definitely consequences.
Listen to our interview with Liesl Gerntholtz:
Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.