Women’s sexual exploitation in the Syrian civil war

Karolina Krukowska

Almost two years of a brutal and bloody civil war in Syria has resulted in the displacement of  more than two and a half million Syrians. They are all in an urgent need of assistance, be it food, water or electricity supplies. Women and girls are among the most vulnerable. According to a report delivered by The International Rescue Committee (January 2013) they are subject to horrific physical and sexual violence. Unfortunately, their suffering rarely makes the headlines.

Raped with rat

The sexual violence accompanies virtually every current conflict and Syria is no exception here, where the situation of women and girls is extremely difficult. As we can read in the report, interviewed Syrian refuges admitted that rape is the main reason why women leave the country. They are attacked either in public or at home often in front of their family members. There are many cases of women who were kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed. The Women Under Siege in Syria project (WUS hereafter), which is run by the United States based Women’s Media Center, curated 133 reports of abuse, rape, and sexual violation of Syrians, both genders.

”One woman described an assault on another prisoner, which she witnessed. “He pushed a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: ‘Is this good enough for you?’ They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.”

This is one of the dreadful stories of Syrian women who suffered from sexual violation. Others are equally dramatic. Witnesses report to the SNHR that security personnel would urinate in the mouths of female detainees to break their will. What is more, a detainee said that she was not allowed to use pads during her period. It led her to sanitize herself using trash, which resulted in developing a “reproductive disease.” There are cases of female prisoners being questioned while naked in separate cells.

“They smelled rotten, like death”

Unfortunately, sexual violation has became a gang-rapes matter. In the report there was a case of a young girl who was “forced to stagger home naked” after being violated by a group of men. It was supposed to bring shame in a society, where modesty is of great value. Another young girl, a witness to her mother’s death reported:

“Three faces got close to mine, and many hands started touching my body. Within seconds I was naked. I tried to fight back. I was trembling like a slaughtered hen. Their arms were like octopus arms squeezing me. I eventually stopped moving. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I was suffocating. They smelled rotten, like death. They shouted, ‘You want freedom? This is freedom, freedom, freedom.’ One monster hit me on the face and kicked my body. He stepped on my chest and I heard my bones cracking. Pain felt like a fire whipping me. I heard them cursing my screaming mom, ‘Shut up, you….’”

The SNHR‎ documented the death of 3,517 Syrian women, 1,079 being underage. 495 females are currently being detained, 27 of those not older than 18 years of age.

Pleasure marriages

Unfortunately, due to stigma and social norms around “dishonor” which rape brings, women are not willing to report the crimes they were subject to. Many of them are afraid also of retribution of the torturers. The reason for keeping the crimes in secret is also a fear of being killed by a family member in a case they would find out about rape, as it is considered a dishonor for them. IRC reported a father who killed her daughter in order to avoid a disgrace when a soldier approach her. However, even before the civil war in Syria women were killed because of bringing shame. There have also been cases of suicide when the shame seems to be unbearable. The famous one is about a girl in Latakia who killed herself by jumping off the balcony after she was raped.

In order to avoid a shame of being raped girls are forced by families to get marry as soon as possible. It is unthinkable how family members let their female relative suffer in such a way. However, as Hassan Hassan writes “It was also triggered by clerics such as Sheikh Adnan Arour, a hardline Syrian cleric, who has issued fatwas (Islamic decrees-permitting the sexual exploitation of minors) to encourage men to marry victims of sexual assault and „cover their shame” through marriage.” In fact, it has just led to even more sexual abuse. These marriages are so called ‘pleasure marriages’ [Nikah al-Mut’ah] which allow men to marry for a limited period, for example 30 minutes. No divorce is required. This form of marriage is nothing but a rape, legalized prostitution. There are 14 and 15 year old girls who are forced into such marriages.

100 dinars for a Syrian wife

It is common to see requests by men „seeking marriage from Syrian girls” on Arabic online forums. Hassan Hassan of The National reported in September of 2012 that “girls are reportedly being taken from refugee camps in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is most often named as the destination, but a similar trend is reported in other countries including Iraq and Turkey. [..] Maher Abu Tair, a Jordanian columnist, wrote: „All we hear these days is stories about a Syrian wife who can be bought for 100 dinars ( around 100 Euro). One could go to any of the areas of Al Mafraq, Amman, Ramtha, Irbid or Karak to pick for himself a Levantine houriya.” (A Levantine houriya, or virgin, is a reference to women from the Levant known in Arab cultures for their beauty). He added that people are encouraged by the speedy, cheap and conditions-free marriages.” Also in Egypt the number of Syrian women who have married Egyptian men has increased rapidly. They all claim they do it in a good faith in order to take care of dishonoured Syrian women.

What should be done

As for recommendations of the report concerning help of women and girls in Syria, one of the most important points is to prioritize the gender-based violence crisis. International donors should treat that issue with special attention. They also should also increase funding for survivors, specialized medical care, emotional support, safe accomodation and safety and prevention information alongside augmentation of protection of vulnerable women and girls. More effective cooperation between international donors, U.N. and local organizations to increase the quality and quantity of services is of utmost importance. Syrian activists who fight for women’s rights also need more support.

The issue of women’s exploitation is also not widely publicized. We have to speak up on behalf of all of the harmed women and bring their suffering to an end. Your voice can also be heard. Please share this article and let other people know what is happening around us.




















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