The rampant exploitation of women and children in Syria demands global attention
In the next week, on March 8, the entire world will be celebrating International Women's Day. This day comes on the heels of an unprecedented global movement for women's rights, equality and justice. This has taken the form of global marches and campaigns, including the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaign in different parts of the world, on issues ranging from sexual harassment and femicide to equal pay and equal political representation for women.
The theme for this International Women's Day, is "Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women's lives". The theme "Time is Now" must be reflected by the international community to stop the atrocities against Syrian women. The unremitting Syrian War has entered its seventh year. As for any conflict in the world, women and children, in the civil war of Syria also, are the worst-hit. Women and children constitute the majority of refugees and also the internally displaced. The report, entitled "Voices from Syria 2018" said: "Examples were given of women or girls marrying officials for a short period of time for 'sexual services' in order to receive meals; distributors asking for telephone numbers of women and girls; giving them lifts to their houses 'to take something in return' or obtaining distributions 'in exchange for a visit to her home' or 'in exchange for services, such as spending a night with them'." It added: "Women and girls 'without male protectors', such as widows and divorcees as well as female IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), were regarded as particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation."
This civil war has prompted millions of people to flee their homes and a majority of them have found refuge in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, among others. Turkey has been more receptive than any other country. As a result of this, so many refugees started opting for Europe and the world finally woke up to the flow of Syrian refugees in 2015, particularly the horrific scene of women and children fleeing in unsafe boats. The figure includes two million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, 3.5 million Syrians registered by the Government of Turkey, as well as more than 30,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa.
These Syrian women refugees are facing sexual and gender-based violence, early marriages, an overwhelming economic strife, and psychological scarring caused by an immense loss in a war that seemingly has no end. Recent reports by The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) conducted an assessment of gender-based violence in the region last year and concluded that humanitarian assistance was being exchanged for sex in various governorates in Syria. Women are struggling to keep the families together while also providing food and shelter to their children. The problem for them is not only this unforeseen alteration in the conventional gender roles of the Syrian society but also gender-based violence in the form of harassment and humiliation. They have lost their family members, run out of money, at a complete loss of food to eat, braving daily threats to their safety and are also being forced into isolation for losing all of this. Some of the women found work in education, childcare, sewing, handicrafts, agriculture, and hairdressing. It must be noted here that there is a restriction in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, the three major host countries, on the right to work.
It is sad to observe that while the 'ME TOO' campaign drew the attention of the international community about the rampancy of sexual harassment at the workplace, the humanitarian plight and everyday sexual abuse encountered by Syrian refugee women and girls has been ignored for petty national political interest. It is time that India becomes a leading country for welcoming the Syrian refugees, particularly the women and children and also highlights their problem at various international forums.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Amity Institute of Social Sciences, Amity University, Noida. The views expressed are strictly personal.)