Sexual exploitation in Syria: food for sex, rent for sex, safety for sex

by The Region    

 

In the latest Voices from Syria report, released by the United Nations Population Fund, Syrian women have been reported to continue to suffer from movement restrictions, forced marriage, survival sex, sexual exploitation and other forms of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the war-torn country. 

"13-year-old girls go to the bakeries to make a little money," one man from Tall sub-district in rural Damascus told researchers, "I know that people exploit those girls sexually in return for buying bread from them. This is very common." he said.  

Other forms of gender-based violence cited by the report include child marriage, domestic violence which goes unpunished, family violence, abduction, detention and torture.

"The shame and stigma surrounding sexual violence contribute to survivors not talking about violence when it happens. Women and girls also fear honour killing as a result of sexual violence" reads the report, "The socio-economic situation, lack of livelihood opportunities, and increased poverty is ultimately leading more women to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex."

One particular dimension to the ever-pervasive vulnerability of sexual violence that confronts Syrian women has been the complicity of humanitarian organisations in the epidemic. As reported by the BBC on Tuesday, the report also reveals that aid workers, including those working for international organizations and the UN, have traded food for sex.

"We have heard about a few cases where women are exploited during aid distributions. Some distributors might ask for a woman's phone number, or they might give her a lift to her house to take something in return." said one woman in Dar'a. 

Speaking to the BBC, Danielle Spencer, a humanitarian adviser working for a charity, raised the alarm three years ago and complained about how men from local councils in places like Dara'a and Quneitra, as well as humanitarian aid distributors, have asked for sex in return for aid.

"They were withholding aid that had been delivered and then using these women for sex," Ms Spencer told the BBC.

The Voices from Syria report also provides a broad overview of the many ways in which Syrian women have been vulnerable to blackmail, due to their life-circumstances, and have resorted to "survival sex" in order to navigate through their day to day lives.

One woman from Rural Damascus explained to researchers, how for instance, women were forced to offer sexual services to landlords due to the war.

"She could not pay the rent of the house", a woman told researchers about the circumstances of her friend, "yet the property owner allowed her to live there for free providing that he could sleep with her daughters whenever he wanted."

The report is filled with many other stories of a similar nature. 

Women are also often forced into "temporary" and permanent marriages and face considerable threats if they do not give their consent. This has also led to forced marriage as "some parents believe that a married girl will benefit from protection by her husband", according to the researchers which compiled the report.

In response to actions of sexual exploitation by local councils, many International humanitarian organizations have revoked the aid distribution privileges provided to councilmen, and have developed new mechanisms to prevent further action.

But some aid workers have accused the industry of ignoring the epidemic of sexual and doing nothing about it.

"The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women's bodies to be sacrificed", Ms Spencer, an aid worker who has engaged in humanitarian activities in Syria, told the BBC.    

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