The Doubled Struggle of Syrian Refugee Women
More than two hundred thousand people have been killed during the almost four year old civil war in Syria while almost half of the country’s population is being forcibly displaced. Since the victims of armed conflicts are more likely to be civilians than soldiers in the contemporary world, the Syrian conflict affects women and children most, in which gender-based violence has been used as a weapon of war.
During the conflict in Syria, women experienced torture, sexual assault, physical abuse, or harassment as a direct result of their activism. Some became household heads following their husbands’ arbitrary detention or death, some suffered injury themselves being objected to daily bombardments or paralyzed by snipers. Whether participating in demonstrations, providing humanitarian assistance, or taking on responsibility for their families, these women are not only bearing the burden of conflict but persevering in spite of it, often at great personal risk.
As the workers of an NGO, we regularly encounter those women struggling individual and familial damnifications. To give an example, in January 2013, IHH carried out a huge prisoner exchange through its humanitarian diplomacy efforts in Syria. In scope of this operation, 2,130 civilian prisoners who were held by the Syrian regime embraced freedom in an exchange of 48 Iranian who were captivated by opposition groups. 73 of those prisoners were women who had been imprisoned for months, even years without trials and subjected to any kinds of torture one can imagine.
Today, the Syria case is considered one of the greatest refugee crises of the world. According to Amnesty International, the current number of Syrian refugees is 3.2 million. 97 percent of this burden is shared by five neighbouring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Considering the numbers are believed to be much higher, all these countries are now exhausted by these large refugee influxes and are beginning to implement some restrictions on their border crossing policies.
Those who could not manage to cross the borders take shelter in relatively safe places inside the country mostly in the camps near border areas. As an NGO worker who paid several visits to IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps in Syrian side of the Turkish border, I can clearly say that their situation is the worst. They are neither formally protected by the international community nor recognized as IDPs by the Syrian regime. With the lack of a safe zone for civilians in the country they are also under the threat of bombardment both by the regime and opposition groups. Some camps were subjected to several attacks in the past as it can be remembered.
As for those who live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, the living conditions differ accordingly to the wealth and approach of host communities. We are proud that Turkey is constantly shown as the best among other countries, hosting 1.6 million refugees with 22 well-resourced camps which are currently operating at full capacity, providing free health care and showing humanitarian based approach towards refugees. Yet, more than 3 years on, now we have to question the concept of refugee camp in order to improve them to be sustainable for longer living, considering the Syrian civil war is expected to continue.
Syrians, who appear to us as a solid community, are actually composed by different groups of people from different backgrounds, attitudes, social classes as other communities in the world. They once lived in their own country surrounded by their family, relatives and neighbours who made them feel secure, now live in a camp with strangers, obliged to use common living spaces including bathrooms and kitchens. Here, women are also in question. Some refugees prefer to live outside the camps despite economical challenges even though physical conditions in camps are good; because they want to provide a decent life for their young daughters in a neighbourhood where there is a settled social pattern to integrate and feel more secure.
In Turkey more than 85 percent of Syrian refugees are living outside the camps, mostly in communities along the Turkish-Syrian border. While only 15 percent of them receive assistance from humanitarian agencies and organizations, the rest have to fend for themselves from shelter to basic needs. Running out of savings once they had, most of them now in need of help or work to afford their family.
While life is difficult for all refugees escaping the ongoing violence in Syria, it is particularly harsh for women and children who make up a disproportionate number of the overall refugee population. Women, who fled conflict zones to save the lives of themselves and their beloved ones, have to face new traumas after becoming refugees while they still carry the sociological and psychological marks of the trauma which they lived through in their country or during the escape. This is where their struggle has become doubled.
Women who are separated from their communities and families -especially widows and orphans- often face a higher risk of exploitation. Syrian women who have to work in a country where they do not even know its language, feel out of its culture are likely to encounter dozens of hardships from agreeing for unqualified jobs with low salaries to abuse and harassment.
Early and forced marriages are happening in all the neighbouring countries where Syrian refugees are seeking safety. However, it is part of their traditions, now perceived necessity by parents for their daughters’ security and well-being. Fearing of rape, sexual harassment and kidnapping during the conflict, Syrian parents chose to marry off their daughters mostly to relatives. This practice continues after taking refuge in other countries.
Under the circumstances of civil war or migration and lack of organized social life, legal procedures lose their operability and abidingness which are essential in normal conditions, and people who have to carry on their life rather apply traditional and informal practices. For example, with the conflict still raging in Syria, it’s nearly impossible to obtain any documentation. This means that even normal marriages remain informal.
Although Turkey is considerably one of the best countries for Syrian refugees, gender-related problems are also the case. In August this year, Turkey was shaken with an incident in which a Syrian renter reportedly killed his landlord in Gaziantep. The incident erupted local and national anger towards Syrians, their workplaces and cars were set on fire, and local people held street demonstrations demanding their leave. The outrage continued until a news report came out claiming it was the renter’s wife who stabbed the landlord while he tried to abuse her, by threatening her with kicking them out otherwise. This example shows that women are at the heart of social consciousness which means gender-related issues can cause greater social problems and trigger hatred and prejudice between communities.
Even though these kinds of incidents are very rare and exceptional, they easily become notorious. Even rumours can cause a rage first on local level, yet eventually national with the help of the media. Therefore, Syrian women also suffer from unfair generalizations. A single incident can defame all refugee women through generalizations and they begin to be seen as opponents by the women of host communities.
As a Syrian refugee woman who stays in Antakya once told me “Yes, there are bad examples among Syrians just like you have in your community. But we are not all the same. We escaped from Syria for our dignity, now it is under threat once again.” So, negative narratives regarding Syrian women harm all refugees including men and children, and reinforce the circulation of hate speech against Syrians in particular but by time all foreigners in general.
It is also of vital importance that there is a significant change in the image of Syrian women. In their publications, international human rights organizations and news agencies exaggeratedly focus on underage marriages, second wives and woman trafficking within the context of sexual abuse against Syrian refugee women.
Syrian women who used to be characterized by their social identity as activists, mothers, wives or students, who were victimized by the conflict, lately began to appear in the headlines within the context of gender-related stories mostly. They were featured as vulnerable young girls who are sold to older Arab sheikhs, second wife options for married men, or even prostitutes. Exaggerating exceptional or limited cases in contrast with such a large refugee population, those publications serve rather to create stereotypes, even regenerate the infamous orientalist narrative portraying Middle Eastern people as primitives.
International communities that have failed to protect civilians during the ongoing conflict in Syria, now blame Syrians for trying to secure themselves through their own individual efforts, be it right or wrong. I think we have to address the circumstances which create the chaos not victims.
To conclude with some recommendations:
Sufferings of Syrian women will continue as the conflict in Syria is dragging on. The international community with its all relevant institutions and world governments should take more responsibility to find a solution in favour of the Syrian people.
Women become more vulnerable against exploitation when they are socially, psychologically, and economically unsecured. The international community should substantially increase their funding of housing, food, health care, and basic needs for refugees to minimize vulnerability. Also, those who are stuck inside Syria under extremely hazardous conditions should not be left alone to their fate. Humanitarian corridors can be granted for them to at least reach aid supplies of basic needs.
Access to education should be eased for refugee children, especially girls. We cannot blame parents for marrying off their young daughters instead of sending them to schools while there is a lack of access to education in that particular country, or even no school to go to. Be it war-torn Syria where even schools have been bombarded or the host community where the access to social services is understandably limited and depends on official regulations.
Mechanisms should be deployed sufficiently in refugee camps and societies to hear the complaints of women in order to resolve the problems. Also natural mechanisms should be improved by increasing consciousness to provide more efficient protection. By raising awareness among women in Turkey about Syrian women, we can create a mutual understanding, a sisterhood between two communities.
There also should be social and cultural orientation courses for Syrian women and families in order to understand the nature of host societies. Thus, we can prevent misunderstanding and reduce complaints based on cultural differences.
Due to their limited resources and unsecured legal situation, crimes committed by refugees or against refugees can be remained in impunity. To challenge impunity, legal process and assistance must be accessible for refugees.
Recognizing women’s multiple and significant roles in the conflict, and their experiences both as actors and victims, is critical to developing appropriate responses to women’s needs inside Syria and in refugee communities. Providing greater support of medical, psycho-social, educational and economic needs for refugee women would ease the hardships of the socialization process in host communities and also ensure their ongoing and meaningful participation in determining the future of Syrians.
*A shorter version of this article was published in Daily Sabah newspaper on Dec 01, 2014.