International American Council

International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

The plight of female Syrian refugees

Over three-quarters of the refugees from the Syrian civil war—1.3 million people—are women or children. This is not an uncommon situation for refugee demographics; after all, while men are more likely to be the ones fighting—and getting killed—often the safest and most prudent options for women, and, by extension, children, is to flee. After all, according to the United Nations, rape is often used as a “weapon of war,” as combatants sexually assault women and girls as a means of subjugating them and forcing the victim population to live in fear, allowing the combatants to roam freely. Thus, for many women, fleeing this conflict seems like the safest option.

However, fleeing often presents its own dangers, as refugee camps present an unstable and unsafe environment for vulnerable refugees. Manal Tahtamouni, who runs a women’s clinic in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, says that 1 out of every 3 or 4 patients her clinic treats are female victims of violence, domestic or otherwise. Tahtamouni’s services, while necessary, are unfortunately not as widespread as they should be: 83 percent of refugees do not even know of any resources designed to help victims of sexual assault. Even in places that should be considered safe, like food distribution lines or latrines, sexual assaults are reported, to the point where even brothel bosses are requesting U.N. camp patrols.

Syria was always seen as a liberal country for women, as compared to its neighbors in the region. Under President Bashar al-Assad and his predecessor father’s Ba’ath Party, which was highly secularized, women were encouraged to become as highly educated as their male counterparts, and were in fact discouraged from wearing headscarves. This is in stark contrast to today’s situation for Syrian women both inside and outside Syria’s borders.

Today, many Syrian women and girls are now in the position of receiving marriage offers from men in much more conservative countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf—and many feel that they are not quite in a position to refuse them. After all, given the poor state of many refugee camps, many women feel that continuing to live in them is not a sustainable lifestyle.

Even more shockingly, many Syrian females who are being pressured to marry are still children—33 percent of refugees were married as children, and the perceived acceptable age of first marriage is plummeting, according to U.N. reports. Many families merely want one less mouth to feed, although many mothers are asserting that marrying their young daughters off actually protects them, as their husbands become obligated to take them under their care.

However, it should be considered heartening news that many Syrian women, as well as their male family members, are determined to maintain their autonomy. Abu Nizar, a Syrian refugee living with his family in Jordan, refused an Emirati doctor’s offer to marry his daughter Rima, because he was concerned that her lack of documentation would mean that the doctor would turn Rima into a “pleasure wife” to be discarded after a short period of time. It is a small ray of light that even in these trying times, for many Syrians, this is not the life they want for their daughters.

By Laura Gates

Source: The Global Post, The Guardian, The United Nations

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