The Syrian crisis poses an intense amount of questions for lawmakers across the Globe, with each question just as important and as crucial to the process of peace than every other. Do we arm the rebels? If not, then what next? If we are to provide arms to the rebel groups, which rebel groups to provide arms to? How to know and ensure those arms won’t fall into Islamist hands? How to ensure a peaceful and stable democracy upon the fall of Assad? What balance to strike with regard diplomacy with the Russians? How to deal with unwanted intrusions of Iran? These are all grand scale, legitimate questions that rightly require thoughtful and decisive action from the international community. There is however, one major and shocking crisis that we seem to hear very little about, and that is the refugee crisis. And within that crises, is the crisis of the truly horrendous exploitation of female Syrian refugees.
It is of course obvious that Syria faces a humanitarian disaster, as the rest of the World struggles to find any sort of political, and humanitarian solution. As of June 3rd 2013, 472,764 people have fled Syria, into Jordan. A further 1.2 million have fled to other countries since the beginning of the civil unrest. A recent report by UN Women, shows the scale of exploitation of Syrian female refugees, particularly in Jordan, but also Egypt. This crisis is often engulfed by the question of arms to rebels, and Russian/Western diplomacy.
Syria itself is a hotbed of sexual exploitation right now, and one of the key reasons for fleeing, is the protection of children from sexual exploitation, and the hope of protection in neighbouring Nations. Stories from refugees of the crisis tell of the shocking abuse they suffered inside Syria. Roadblocks in Syria are often used to kidnap, and rape young women. The International Rescue Committee was told of roadblocks in Syria in which girls were taken, raped, and murdered. Others were left to wander alone, often naked, after being raped. Some media outlets, for some reason, ask “Is this policy of the Assad regime? Or punishment for Assad supporters?” It is neither. It is sexual exploitation. It is rape. And so it has no political motive.
Sexual exploitation is given as one of the key reasons for fleeing Syria, in attempts to get away quickly, and to find protection, especially in refugee camps administered by international AID agencies.
And yet, many only make it just across the border before the exploitation begins. The border towns in Jordan, right into Amman are now home to Syrian women pushed into prostitution, as well as pushed into marrying their children to older Syrian men, simply to survive. More find themselves and their children thrown into very tightly packed refugee centres, and treated as prisoners. The tented refugee community of Za’artari in the north of Jordan, a place supposed to protect the vulnerable and overseen by UNHCR, is treated like a toy shop for exploiters, as well as being completely underfunded, lacking basic resources, under prepared for the extreme weather conditions, and under protected. Those who work within the camp from aid agencies face an uphill struggle every day. One Syrian refugee, who fled to Jordan with her children, and is now in Za’artari told the BBC of conditions back home in Syria:
“They come into our homes. They rape us, and they kill, in front of our eyes.”
– To flee this appalling situation, only to find yourself in an equally as appalling situation, having been under the impression that you would be protected by the international community, is unimaginable. From hell, to hell.
Fathers in the camp, who fled with very little money, and very little way to support their families find themselves and their families now living in a far more patriarchal and dangerous situation, especially for their female children, than before. Abu Sanad, a father in the camp said:
“People from Jordan, from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, they come and ask: ‘Do you want to give your daughters for marriage? What do they see us as? A market place for selling? Like selling sheep.They see we don’t have money. They want to exploit us. Give me your daughter for 200,000 lira or 100,000 lira. ”
In Jordan, Syrians are pushed to the brink, and so believe that selling their child into early marriage offers their child a form of security and protection. It is desperation. A desperation no parent should ever feel forced to consider. Their children, and their bodies, are treated as commodities.
One teenage girl, whose eyes appeared red from fatigue, and heart breakingly teary throughout her interview, told the BBC that she was forced into marriage to support herself, noting:
“I can’t describe him as a man. The way he treated me. He treated me savagely. He was a monster. He was hitting me so much. The bruises are still on my body. He said ‘I do not love you. I only married you for my pleasure’ “.
– This is the reality of the humanitarian disaster facing Syrian female refugees every day, and it is caused by other human beings.
In the camps, what tends to be the case, is that wealthy men, almost predominantly from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, are allowed into Zaatari, under the guise of charity, but who are looking mainly for young girls to exploit. They offer charity, in exchange for a wife. The girls are promised everything they could wish for, and protection for their families, but within days are often found wandering in Jordanian streets having been viciously abused, and dumped. Their ‘honour’ is thus considered to have been destroyed. Nour, a Syrian refugee now in Jordan, told thestar.com that after being chained up, and raped for two months, inside Syria, in a detention centre, her family issued a death certificate for her. She told how they now consider her disgraced, and dead. Her husband fled with her children.
IRIN News reported that a Syrian mother, named Um Sarah, of two daughters ages 14 and 15 told:
“As a single mother, I cannot support them. I cannot feed them. I wanted to make sure they are OK, so I asked around if people know of good Syrian men they could marry. They rape girls who are as young as her in Syria now. If they raped a nine-year-old girl, they can do anything. I will not feel OK if I do not see her married to a decent man who can protect her,””
– The heavy reliance on men, who will only provide a young and vulnerable girl with any assistance if he is able to sexually exploit her, speaks to the heart of two problems. Firstly, the Syrian crisis itself, and secondly, the patriarchal societies that patriarchal religions and the men that control them create and perpetuate, which inevitably leads to the very dangerous myth that women require men for survival. Um Sarah, no doubt as a result of both desperation, and of regional biases, believes that her daughters are safer in the hands of men who will marry them, in order to sexually exploit them (we know this, because the majority of young girls who enter into child marriages are pregnant soon after marriage), rather than those who actively seek out women to abuse without the promise of protection and food. Not only that, but rape is only named so, when the rapist isn’t married to the victim. It is also considered a dishonour to the family of the victim, if she is raped, and so marriage apparently safeguards the family against dishonour. This is the result of empowering one gender, and crushing the other. Both of those two groups of men, are vicious abusers, exploiting the appalling situation refugees are finding themselves in.
Similarly, in Egypt, we see Syrian female refugees finding that they have in fact fled a hostile environment, only to be presented with a new hostile and extremely dangerous environment of people that see them as vulnerable and so easily exploitable. Life in refugee camps is horrific, but life outside of refugee camps, can often by far worse. Refugees in cities often squat in broken buildings, living in squalid conditions, suffering terrible illnesses that they have no access to even the most basic of healthcare. They often take out loans from dubious sources, and with no real income, turn to prostitution, and again, marrying their children young in exchange for a dowry. The International Rescue Committee spoke to Syrian refugees inside Egypt and found numerous accounts of women turning to sex, to pay rent, and to feed their children; children who are threatened daily with exploitation, unless they’re married off. Islamist preachers in Egypt actively encourage Egyptian men to marry young and vulnerable Syrian girls. The Syrian activist Lina Al-Tiby works in Cairo with Syrian female refugees in order to keep them away from sex trafficking and horrendous exploitation, noted:
“Egyptian men tell Syrian women they will marry them to help them and their families, but… can’t these men help Syrian women without marrying them?”
– Under Syrian law, the legal age for marriage is 16 (though so-called “informal” marriages allow girls as young as 13 to marry and have children, if “religious leaders” deem it acceptable). Under the new Egyptian charter, thrown together by horrendous Islamist child abusers, the legal age has been dropped from 18, to 13, with Islamists inside the Morsi supported Brotherhood calling for the age to be dropped further, to 9. Couple this with the apparent ‘dishonour’ a young girl is supposed to feel if she is raped, and so the Syrian refugee crises marks a perfect opportunity, in Middle Eastern countries run almost predominantly by men, for men, to lawfully exploit the most vulnerable people – who need the most support – for the perverted fantasies of Brotherhood child and women abusers.
UNICEF Jordan Representative working at Za’artari noted in January this year:
“The resources we raised in 2012 have been exhausted, and no fresh funds have come for this year. We urgently appeal to the international community and donors in general to commit fresh funding as soon as possible.”
– Conditions at the camp are only likely to deteriorate further as more and more Syrians flee across the Jordanian border.
UN Women are working hard to change conditions, and fight for international recognition of the problems in Za’artari and beyond.
The camp at Za’artari falls under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and yet is slowly diminishing into a hotbed of sexual exploitation of women and children. The camp at Za’artari is also accused of a severe lack of resources for abuse victims, including counseling services and a lack of knowledge of those services that do exist in the camp, with 83% of Syrian refugees completely unaware that any services like that exist at all. This is not the fault of the aid workers in the camp, it is the fault of massive underfunding by our governments. It is a humanitarian catastrophe on so many levels, right down to the most basic of humanitarian concerns; protecting children from sexual exploitation. Medical care, food and water supplies dwindle, they are not protected from harsh climate conditions, and this naturally exacerbates fears from refugee parents that their children will suffer the most, which pushes them into the arms of abusers promising protection. Western politicians can argue daily on the subject of who to provide arms to, in the hope that the country will sort itself out, but the crisis that absolutely needs our full attention, and funding, is on the humanitarian level.
The situation in Za’artari and elsewhere is shameful to the international community as a whole. It also highlights the most telling flaws in a society that promotes one gender above another, based on religious principles. This is why a political solution, as well as being democratic, must not be allowed to institutionalise patriarchy. It must move past this archaic phase. The empowerment of women, must be one of the key aspects to any solution in Syria.