This week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, co-chair the largest global meeting on sexual violence ever in London, The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
As part of a Chatham House research project focusing on the experiences of women facing violence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region after the Arab uprising, I interviewed two focus groups of Syrian refugee women in Jordan’s capital, Amman, last month. One told me: ‘I’d rather be dead than be raped’. Another girl said: ‘I’d rather be buried under the ground than be touched’. Fear of sexual violence was something described by all the women interviewed; every day and everywhere − at the detention centres, in house searches, and at check points. This has been a reality in Syria over the last three years, since the conflict began. As a result, many women described the fear of sexual violence as a driving force to flee from their homes to seek refuge elsewhere in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.
It is difficult to address the issue of sexual violence in any society, and this is particularly true of the MENA countries. Aside from the women’s own fear, people in the wider community avoid talking about the issue. One male Syrian refugee, whose wife had spent two months in prison before being reunited with him and their newborn baby, told me: ‘I told my wife not to tell me anything about what happened to her in prison, NOTHING − I don’t want to know.’
There are many reasons for this: the deep-rooted social stigma and shame associated with sexual violence, rape in particular; the unquestionable devastation and other forms of violence, that overshadow the reports of sexual violence; and the overwhelming and multiple needs for health, education, employment, and political participation which dominate the expressed needs of the people.
Syrian women refugees are also experiencing more specific problems. Throughout the Middle East, it is anecdotally reported that Syrian families are asking for much lower dowries than before the conflict began, creating a perception that young Syrian women are considered ‘cheap’. Tales such as these compound a chronic violation of women’s rights, a systematic lack of women’s autonomy over their bodies, and nurture a belief within the women themselves that there are no other options available.
As a result, Syrian women feel they are at risk within their own communities, from militant groups and from the wider community, due to inequitable views and a perceived social sense of entitlement over women’s bodies. This is also felt by Syrian refugee women living in other countries in the region too, who may also be at risk of becoming particularly vulnerable to local men.
In the midst of conflict the focus is often on militant groups, the violent clashes, and the use of weapons. It is easy to overlook the perpetrators of sexual violence, who often flourish in conflict due to an increase in opportunity and impunity, despite it causing just as much destruction and devastation. In addition, when these issues are addressed in the media, far from reducing the incidents, they can instead fuel attacks by producing salacious images of rape and its effects, also creating fear and leaving women feeling even less empowered and more vulnerable.
The women interviewed also said that child marriages, sometimes involving a very young girl and a man 20 or 40 years older, are common in Syria. Indeed, such marriages sometimes seem to be encouraged by their parents, ‘to get rid of this matter [rape or the fear of rape]’ or to gain financially, because a younger girl often has a higher dowry price.
However, information – which is a key to understanding and closing gender gaps – on these marriages, and what happens within households, with regards to domestic violence is sorely missing.
The international community needs to pay greater attention to fill these gaps in knowledge of intra-household dynamics, specifically relating to the control over women’s bodies, and the autonomy of women and girls compared to men and boys. Without this information we are in danger of making inaccurate assumptions about social norms. Understanding family and community dynamics and social perceptions of gender can be used to build bridges between differing perceptions of gender and rights. Closing this gender gap could enable women to move more freely and appear safely in public spaces; pursue an education and career; choose when and who to marry; and work towards attaining their rights and reaching their potential.
A global summit of this scale opens doors and starts much-needed conversations, a huge step in the right direction away from denying the true scale of the issue. However, it is time to say, ‘let’s deal with it’, time to take some real action. This means full empowerment for women and girls in voice and agency, with full protection of the law.
We must hold accountable men who use sexual violence in conflict in Syria, just as we must hold those accountable who allow sexual violence to happen in a workplace, a refugee camp, or other spaces, in all its forms and at all times.
Empowering women by promoting their access to economic opportunities, ownership of assets and decision-making is a further, more long-term challenge. Survivors in a humanitarian crisis are often in urgent need of medical and psychosocial support, but they also need education and fair employment too. As one of the Syrian women told me: ‘I want a good job, I want to go to the university’, she added: ‘I want to settle down’.
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