Women Come Last in Syrian Refugee Camps

'The low status of women in Syria and other Arab nations — as well as the cultural relativism practised by the agencies mandated to protect them — has resulted in abuse and violence'

Zaatari refugee camp, in the middle of a bleak stretch of desert in northern Jordan, just 15 miles from the Syrian border, is home to more than 120,000 people escaping the violence and repression in Syria. Three-quarters are women and children. Many of the women and girls have fled their homes after experiencing atrocities involving multiple rapes and sexual torture by armed men. 

The scandal of Zaatari and other refugee camps and dwellings is that these vulnerable, traumatised women and girls are not being adequately protected from sexual exploitation and forced marriage by those mandated to keep them from further harm. 

Women and girls not only fear retribution by the perpetrators, but also by male members of their own families because the shame and stigma of rape falls on the victim rather than the assailant. Indeed, many families are marrying off their daughters to “protect” them from rape. Others revert to early marriage if their daughters have been sexually assaulted “to safeguard their honour”. In one extreme case a young woman was shot dead by her father when an armed group approached to prevent the “disgrace” of her being raped.

A recently published report by the International Rescue Committee found that female Syrian refugees are not safe from sexual and domestic violence in Zaatari and other camps, and that reports of forced marriage of women and girls are increasing. A child protection group found that the women and girls in the camp identified rape and kidnapping as a primary reason that families fled from Syria, but that sexual violence was rarely reported.

Sexual exploitation at Zaatari is so widespread that a number of camp inhabitants are operating informal monitoring groups and have caught out several “marriage brokers” who infiltrated the camp posing as workers. These individuals are merely escorted off the camp if reported. 

Indeed, a number of UN officials and aid workers I met at Zaatari and in other camps and settlements in Jordan and Lebanon tell me it is known that prostitution and trafficking of women, both at the border and within the camp exist, but to date no formal investigation has been commissioned into these criminal activities. 

At Zaatari crowds of desperate women and men queue for water and basic provisions, others sit on the ground staring into space. I ask Andrew Harper, chief of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan, if there is concrete evidence of women and girls being sold at the borders and in the camp. “Many of the families are experiencing dire poverty,” says Harper, “so it would be no surprise if it is happening.” What is surprising is that no proper investigation into the matter has yet been carried out at Zaatari, despite local reports and official suspicion.

Women at Zaatari complain that men regularly enter the communal kitchens specifically to sexually harass lone women. Some are too afraid to use the kitchens and prefer to cook on portable gas stoves outside their tents. There are also complaints that at night the unlit latrines become sites where prostitution and sexual assault take place. Many women are too scared to use them after dark.

Jordanian police are responsible for law and order in the camp but it is apparent that there is a lack of security and that matters are out of hand. At the public security department, responsible for police, security, and law enforcement activities across Jordan, I meet Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Majali, an imposing figure resplendent in an immaculate uniform bearing numerous medals. “There are assaults, burglary, homicides in Zaatari,” admits al-Majali. “It is a town. These things happen.”

Between 200 and 250 police officers are deployed in the camp at any one time but only five officers are allocated to family protection, despite the fact that domestic violence towards women and children by male family members has been identified as a significant problem in Zaatari.

I ask al-Majali how bad the situation is for women and girls in the camp in terms of rape and sexual harassment. “There have not been any convictions for rape at all,” he tells me proudly. “We did, however have a case where a father broke his daughter’s arm, but it was resolved because it was agreed by everyone not to press charges but to keep it as a family matter.”

Back at Zaatari I visit the sprawling school operated by UNHCR. It is midday and the boys crowd outside waiting for the girls to leave so they can begin their classes. A 15-year-old student tells me unprompted when asked about her future plans that she is “not even thinking about marriage yet” and would like to train as a pharmacist. It may not be her decision: Alexis Masciarelli of Unicef admits that there is “serious concern” about the rates of early pregnancy. “There are significant absences from school from the age of 13 upwards,” he says, adding that the organisation is “looking into the matter”. At the maternity clinic I see many pregnant teenage girls. On average, 11 babies are born in the camp every day.

Dr Shible Sahbani is humanitarian affairs specialist for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) at Zaatari, which provides support and direct services to women and their children. “In our culture women are not allowed to go outside unless accompanied by their husbands and sons,” he says.

“In Arabic culture the men have a strong role in the family, but here in the camp the male has lost his role because food is for free, and shelter is for free. He gets stressed and the result is domestic violence.”

Margherita Maglietti specialises in countering gender-based violence for UNFPA. She proudly shows me the women-only group sessions being held in a prefab on the camp; they are packed with women, many clutching babies, being encouraged to speak about difficulties they face. Incongruously, men are leading the session. I ask Maglietti if she has encountered prostitution and trafficking at Zaatari. “It is a very complex topic and we have been discussing it quite a lot. We cannot say there are confirmed cases. We do know that in situations like this survival sex is part of the scenario, so it cannot be denied.”

But the previous day I had been told by a senior law enforcement official that the main concern for police at Zaatari in relation to women and children is that prostitution is thriving on the camp, and that the authorities have “no idea” what to do about it. Indeed, sources close to the Zaatari security agencies tell me that a number of women have been targeted by pimps and traffickers in Zaatari who smuggle them out of the camp into one of the thriving brothels in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

At the urban settlement camp in Mafraq, 80 kilometres north of Amman, I am told by Rev Nour Sahawneh of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which provides support for the Syrian refugees in the community, that most of the female refugees living there were married at 14 or 15 and are illiterate.

Polygamy as well as child marriage is common in rural Syria. In Mafraq I visit a family who fled Aleppo a year ago after their house was destroyed. The conditions in which they live are appalling. Sabine (not her real name) is 26 years old but her face and demeanour make her look much older. She has been married for seven years and has two children, aged one and two. She also helps look after the seven children her husband has with his first wife, whom he married when she was 14. “I wish I had my own house with my two children nearby,” says Sabine. “But there is no money. It hurts my heart living like this, but I have no choice.” 

Sabine cries as she shows me the kitchen in which meals are prepared for three adults and nine children. Damp penetrates the walls. There are two rooms and a washroom with a cold tap. One of the children is profoundly disabled. I learn that the first wife is pregnant again. “One of us gets pregnant at the beginning of the year and the other at the end,” Sabine says.

I travel to Lebanon to meet with aid workers and refugees from Syria to discover whether the situation for women is any different from those in Jordan. At the Danish Refugee Council offices in Zahle, project manager Ziad Kmeid tells me “it is known” that Syrian men are abusing both Syrian and Lebanese women and girls, and that child marriage is a problem. Kmeid admits that there are cases of Syrian girls being sold into marriage and prostitution at the border and taken to Saudi Arabia and other countries. Nothing so far has been done to stop this criminal activity.

Angelina Eichhorst, EU Ambassador to Lebanon, says that dealing with the aftermath of sexual violence among Syrian refugees is a “top priority for the NGOs and others dealing with the crisis”. As with Jordan, however, it is difficult to see what is being done to identify and deal with the problems.

“In order to ‘protect’ women in Lebanon some are being married off aged 14 or so to Lebanese men, often as second or third wives,” says Eichhorst. “Polygamy was a negligible practice in Lebanon before the Syrian crisis, although sexual violence was not. I am not saying early marriage is violence, though — it is not the same.”

Even government ministers admit to the widescale sexual exploitation of refugee women. Wael Abu Faour, Minister of Social Affairs, admits that crimes against women and girls are being committed in the camps and other dwellings. “Forced prostitution and child marriage is happening here, both by Syrian and Lebanese men. But how do you control it with such large numbers involved?”

Laurice Balech is a protection officer at the Danish Refugee Council in Bekaa, offering emergency assistance for refugees. Balech tells me she has heard from locals living near the refugees that some of the women are prostituted but that there is “nothing to substantiate it”.

She says: “We have cases of early marriage, in some cases of girls who are 12 and 13, but it is not really forced on them. The girls accept it. It is part of their culture.” 

Some of these girls, according to Balech, find themselves in polygamous marriages. “Polygamy is quite common in Syria. Some men have three wives. It is culturally and religiously accepted. But to have a second wife you have to have a second home. It is not possible [to be allocated two separate dwellings for one family] when you are living in a camp or urban settlement, and that is when the problems can start.”

Without doubt there are swathes of people providing life-saving emergency support to the displaced Syrians and who work under immense pressure to do so. But the violence and abuse so commonplace in the lives of Syrian women and girls is too often viewed as part of “culture” rather than crime. 

During my time in Jordan and Lebanon I met with several highly-trained specialists in the field from a variety of organisations and governments. Not one mentioned prosecution or punishment of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses of women and children. It would appear that in any crisis, women come last. The low status of women and girls within Syria and other Arab nations, and the cultural relativism practised by many of the agencies and law enforcers mandated to protect them has resulted in further abuse and violence. 

Just before leaving Zaatari I travel by coach with journalists and aid workers to the highest point of the camp and alight to take photographs. Within seconds a large group of males of all ages surround the vehicle, aggressively pushing and appearing to enjoy alleviating their boredom and frustration by jostling our group. We are ushered on to the bus by security staff and driven away while the crowd bang on the windows and try to jump on the bus, shouting and waving their fists. As we depart, it strikes me that the women and girls of Zaatari are still living in fear of the male violence that caused them to flee their homeland.

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