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Syria Crisis - The darkest shadow of war

Blog on Syrian violence

SCIAF Media Officer Val Morgan explores the serious issue of sexual violence towards female Syrian refugees

“Sexual violence and abuse of women is a major problem but it is not in our culture to talk about it. We have heard some terrible stories from the Zatari camp,” said one aid worker I spoke to in Jordan.

I had seen this problem before in the Democratic Republic of Congo when very large numbers of people flee their homes and are displaced by war. It is often the case in these situations that women and girls become much more exposed to abuse and sexual violence.

This horrific problem now seems to be spreading as an indirect result of the ongoing war in Syria. Yet again, ordinary people are carrying the heaviest burden. In Lebanon I spoke to Fahtma Mchawreb, a senior social worker at the Saida migrant centre supported by SCIAF. Fahtma told me the problem was on the rise:

“Mothers alone have no protection. Sexual violence and abuse is increasing. However, people do not talk about it as sex is a taboo subject in this country. But rape is happening here in Lebanon.

“Before, UNHCR would deal with these cases but we have taken over from them and in the last three months we are discovering more and more of these cases. Up to now we had referred them to Abaad, a specialist NGO in Syria.

“We already have a sexual violence and abuse programme with workers doing training for people in the community. The support we provide includes trying to help those affected meet their material needs, and also a referral to a psychologist.

“With the abuse of women we often discover it when we do our first home visit. Sometimes the women come to us after they have been beaten by their husband. They need someone to support them and they trust the social worker.

“In one case a woman was inside a shelter with her uncle. We thought something was wrong. Then she came to the migration centre and told us. She was raped by her father-in-law. He threatened her, ‘If you refuse me or talk about this to anyone, I will take the children and will throw you away’. When she came here she was very afraid as she was here illegally so couldn’t talk to the police or authorities. The children were also illegal.

“We have asked UNHCR to register and help her. She did an awareness session on sexual violence with a psychologist who talked with her about her experience – both in a group and on her own and also referred her to a Caritas lawyer to see if she can get legal papers – if she wants to go to the police she needs to be registered.”

Many Syrian women and young girls now fleeing the war are alone, isolated and more vulnerable to attack than ever. Whilst SCIAF and our Caritas partners are providing support in this area, every effort must be made by all agencies on the ground to provide secure environments for women and appropriate help for those who have been attacked or domestically abused.

Of all the war crimes that are being perpetuated in this and other conflicts, sexual violence is often the one that is least reported because of the stigma attached to it. As humanitarians, we need to ensure help is given to all, especially those who hide their hurt deep in the shadows of war.

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