Syrian refugee, Oum Ali, wipes away tears as she recalls her escape from Aleppo. Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank
If we read, watch or listen to the news, we are aware of the extended and intense conflict in Syria and the staggering social disruption that has resulted. Over 6.5 million people have been displaced within the country and more than 2.5 million Syrians are registered as refugees in countries nearby. Those combined numbers represent an excess of 40 per cent of the pre-conflict population.
It is of no surprise that in such circumstances, women and girls have been particularly at risk. Both women within Syria and those who have fled have been put at risk of increased incidence of gender-based violence (GBV) in general, and sexual violence in particular.
A recent report from UN Women — ‘We just keep silent’ Gender-based violence amongst Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (April 2014) — explains that “the experience of forced relocation has meant increased levels of violence and insecurity for women and girls.” Disturbingly, it goes on to say that “more than half of those interviewed for this report stated that fear of rape was a primary driving factor for their fleeing Syria — a finding similar to that found in a 2012 assessment in Lebanon.”
Sexual violence experienced in Syria prior to leaving was reported in all of the focus groups and young women in particular indicated that they voluntarily curtailed their time spent outside the home as a result. Risks remained after leaving Syria, however, with a range of GBV issues including higher rates of intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, early and forced marriage and honour killings, to name a few.
These concerns are “exacerbated by inadequate access to affordable safe housing, overcrowding and a lack of opportunities for employment and education.” Violence against women and girls is underreported and the stigma associated with it means that it is impossible to provide an accurate assessment of the number of cases. However, it is nonetheless clear that there is a need for reproductive health care, psychosocial assistance, education and job training, and protection strategies for survivors.
While prevention through changing community attitudes is the desired outcome, the report also provides specific recommendations aimed at government, humanitarian groups and donors.
The experience of Syrian women in Iraq is not unique. An earlier report, produced by UN Women in July 2013 (Inter-Agency Assessment: Gender-based Violence and Child Protection Among Syrian Refugees in Jordan, With a Focus on Early Marriage) addressed the similar problems and challenges that face Syrian women refugees in Jordan, albeit on a much larger scale. At the time of report, Jordan was the host of more than 470,000 Syrian refugees, eighty per cent are women and children. Similar issues regarding access to services for survivors (either a lack of services all together or a lack of knowledge of what is available), early marriage, and child protection concerns are raised.
And another report, Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict , written by Sema Nasar for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network in late 2013, addresses the range of violent acts that Syria women continue to be exposed to within Syria. It reiterates the difficulties in documenting the extent of the problem, but the report intends to “shed light on the range of violence and violations affecting Syrian women in the context of the conflict, including crimes under international law … in view of advocating for perpetrators to be held accountable in the future, and for extensive efforts to be deployed to support and rehabilitate the victims, their families and communities.”
This post was written by Monique Cuillerier. She is the Membership and Communications Director of the World Federalist Movement – Canada.