Published on 8 Sep 2015 Sections ,

Syria: The Hidden War on Women

Syrian refugee women and girls are suffering harassment, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse in exile in Lebanon and Jordan, and that abuse is increasing.

By Sharron Ward

Some have been living in refugee camps like Zaatari in Jordan for over 4 years. But the biggest concentration of refugees lives outside the formal camps. Over 80% per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in urban areas. And it is these refugees who are the most vulnerable.

Last November, the Jordanian Ministry of Health, having spent millions on health care, stopped funding free medical aid to Syrian refugees. Now Syrians must fund it themselves or look to humanitarian aid agencies for help. But it is illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Lebanon and Jordan.

There are no formal camps in Lebanon, and many lone Syrian refugee women I met in the Bekaa valley have to live in rented apartments or small informal tent settlements. There are thousands of Syrian refugee women whose husbands were either killed fighting in Syria or are simply missing – their fate unknown.

These women are increasingly falling prey to sexual harassment, exploitation and the expectation of trading sex in return for aid. Unscrupulous landlords and local charity organisations abuse their power and exploit the vulnerable position of these women who can’t pay their rent or have to rely on aid agencies for help.

‘Samar’ is one such woman I met. If the struggle of trying to survive as a single women with five young children – all who were sick with asthma and themselves traumatised by living under siege and years of bombardments from Assad’s army – wasn’t enough, Samar also has to contend with local charities, run by men who expect her to trade sex for aid in order to get help.

Mona, a widowed woman I met in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon recalls a similar experience.

“The rent was very expensive around $400USD a month. I could not afford the rent, so I asked the landlord for a reduction. He refused, saying ‘I told you – you shine the light on me and I will shine the light on you. But you refused.’

“I didn’t know what he meant,” says Mona. Later she realised he was expecting sex in return for rent.

Samar is not only traumatised by unspeakable horrors during the Syrian war – she saw massacres in which hundreds of people were killed – she also survived a 7-month long siege.

“We would go into bombed out houses, wash the dirt off the rice and eat it,” she explained.

But she too suffers from what she calls “the cruel treatment of women by Syrian society.” She explains that from the age of 8 or 9-years-old, Syrian girls from conservative families starting to reach puberty are kept at home in order to “protect” them from the advances of men.

This restricts their ability to get an education, and as Samar says, there is no way to provide an income now when she needs it the most. Her husband is missing inside Syria, and she struggles to be the breadwinner.

“I’m really suffering in Lebanon, I can’t provide for my children, to provide for all their needs because I didn’t finish my education.”

Syrian refugees are running out of money, and so incidents of early marriage, which has always been traditional in Syria amongst conservative families, are rising rapidly. Marrying off Syrian girls under the age of 18 years old is a way some families see of easing the economic burden.

‘Farah’, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living outside the camps in Jordan was under great pressure from her family to marry early. She was officially engaged three times and informally several times – the first at the age of 12 years old. Each time she refused, she was beaten by her family. First by her father, and then by her brother, who “became his deputy.” The beatings she endured were severe.

Syrian men in exile too are feeling the strain. Unable to work in Jordan and Lebanon, and unable to cope with the humiliating change in their economic circumstances, men are lashing out at their wives more than ever.

‘Amal’ in Jordan told me of the severe psychological stress she endured from her husband.

“He hit me all over my body. He said it was because of our situation in Jordan, that he couldn’t provide for us, he couldn’t work.”

Bravely, Amal speaks out as domestic violence and abuse is stigmatised in Syrian culture. As a result, the true scale of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation remains hidden.

Much needed relief is provided by the United Nations Population Fund which is supporting local government and non-government organisations to empower and counsel both Syrian women and men. But the UN says its humanitarian agencies, heaving under the strain of catering for refugees in the Middle East, is on the brink of bankruptcy.

Dr Shible Sabhani, the UNFPA Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Jordan says that despite gender based violence reaching epidemic proportions in the Middle East, donor fatigue has meant that the “sustainability of our ability to help these vulnerable Syrian women is greatly at risk.”

For thousands of Syrian women in exile in the Middle East, the hidden war on women continues.

Edited by Andy Kemp

Filmed, directed and produced by Sharron Ward

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Syria: The Hidden War is a Katalyst Productions film for Channel 4 News

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