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Syrian women and girls 'forced to exchange sex for aid'

Sexual exploitation of women and girls in Syria by aid workers is alarmingly common [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 February, 2018

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'The more she gives to the distributor, the more aid she will receive': Syrian girls as young as 13 face widespread sexual exploitation from humanitarian workers, a new report shows.
A new report has shed light on the alarming extent to which Syrian internally displaced people (IDPs), specifically women and girls, have for years been subject to sexual exploitation from local men working for the UN and aid organisations, in order to access basic necessities such as food, medicine and shelter.

The report, published by research group The Whole of Syria, expresses deeply disturbing findings on the incidence of gender-based violence among internal refugee communities in Syria.

It highlights the "common risk" faced by women and girls of sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers when trying to access aid.

The report comes shortly after similar reports that Oxfam workers in Haiti and Chad exchanged aid for sex with women afflicted by humanitarian and natural disasters.

The effects of the ongoing conflict; poverty, displacement, and women being head of the household, coupled with gender inequality, have acutely exacerbated the problem of sexual exploitation, according to the report.

Worryingly, unaccompanied girls, or those living in a female-headed household - which is common in IDP communities - are perceived to be highest at risk from this type of exploitation, the report stated.
Thirteen-year-old girls go to the bakeries to make little money. I know that people exploit those girls sexually in return for buying bread from them. This is very common
"Thirteen-year-old girls go to the bakeries to make little money. I know that people exploit those girls sexually in return for buying bread from them. This is very common," one Syrian man told researchers.

Widows and divorced women are also particularly at risk from sexual exploitation, as their limited sources of income leave them with few options to support their families, researchers said.

"I know a woman whose husband died and who has seven kids. Her cousins work as smugglers and are well off. Her cousins tell her they would pay her 100,000 Syrian pounds (£140) per month if she comes to them whenever they tell her to… She needs the money because she has seven kids and it takes an enormous effort to bring them all up alone," one interview participant was quoted as saying.

The report stated the prevalence of men in positions of power abusing their authority to make sexual advances on women and girls, in exchange for goods or services necessary for survival.

'The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women’s bodies to be sacrificed' [Getty]
Researchers explained how refugee women feel ashamed and uncomfortable by these practices, and that many even avoid accessing these vital services and aid for fear of sexual exploitation, or what might happen if they turn down the degrading advances.

"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," one Syrian woman told researchers.

"The more the girl gives to the distributor, the more aid she will receive," said one teenage girl, according to the report.

Women are also commonly forced into unwanted sexual encounters in order to secure housing for themselves and their families.

"She could not pay the rent of the house she was living in, yet the property owner allowed her to live there for free providing that he could sleep with her daughters whenever he wanted," one woman told researchers. 
Somewhere, there has been a decision made that it is ok for women's bodies to continue to be used, abused, violated, in order for aid to be delivered to a larger group of people
British aid worker Danielle Spencer has shared her experience of sexual exploitation of female IDPs - and how it has been ignored throughout the seven-year conflict - in a new video for the BBC.

She explains how local Syrian men, working on behalf of the UN and other humanitarian agencies, exchanged aid for sex.

"Women and girls need to be protected when they are trying to receive food, and soap, and basic items to live. The last thing you need is a man who you’re supposed to trust and receive aid from then asking you to have sex with him and withholding that aid from you," Spencer said.

"The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women’s bodies to be sacrificed. Somewhere, there has been a decision made that it is ok for women’s bodies to continue to be used, abused, violated, in order for aid to be delivered to a larger group of people," she added.

The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria. The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

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