In times of war, members of a same society face very different challenges. The impact of war on someone will vary according to factors such as age, social class, and gender. In a previous blog, it was the plight of Syrian children that was discussed, showing the impact of war on children and the dangers threatening their everyday lives. Children however are not the only vulnerable members of society at war. Syrian women also face extremely adverse conditions.
THE CONTEXT OF THE SYRIAN CONFLICT
The Syrian conflict has left over 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid. Among them are 5 million women of reproductive age, 430,000 of whom are pregnant.
Violence against women is very common in wars and in times of instability. The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women has defined violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
There are many factors that contribute to violence against women in Syria including the destruction of their social networks, which usually offer them protection, and the lack of safe access to services. There is also wide recognition that during conflicts, domestic violence and sexual exploitation are rampant. In addition, in a society where masculinity is defined by the ability to provide protection to one’s household, a woman often becomes a target to humiliate men of her family and undermine their masculinity. This opens doors to increasing targeted harassment, sexual violence, rape, torture, and other abuses.
THE SPREAD OF INSTABILITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas which is very common in many parts of Syria has a dramatic effect on these societies and their social fabric. According to a report on violations against women in Syria by Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom WILPF, the effect of explosive weapons is not only direct, relating to the loss of lives and collateral damage, but also indirect as it leads to forced displacement, the erosion of social capital and the destruction of basic infrastructure which affect women disproportionately. Furthermore, the instability created by war has led to the dramatic increase in the use of individual small arms. According to WILPF, the proliferation of small arms has an impact on women as it often leads to increasing levels of domestic violence and restriction of their movement. This is especially the case in a tense environment devoid of any rule of law.
The cracking down on activists since the beginning of the uprising in 2011 has led to the arrest of thousands of women. Yet in addition to women activists who get arrested for their political activism, women are often targeted to bring “shame” to the entire family or to force their male family members who are activists to turn themselves in. Conditions of detention are appalling and often the scene of physical and psychological torture, as well as sexual harassment.
In areas controlled by the al-Nusra Front or the so called Islamic State (IS), there are a lot of strict and discriminatory rules against women. These include a restriction on their movement and ability to be involved in public life. In areas control by IS, Human Rights Watch reported many cases of sexual enslaving of women and girls.
The war in Syria has left the Syrian economy in tatters. Today, it is estimated that three out of four people live in poverty and more than half of the working age Syrians are unemployed. By the end of 2014, Syria ranked 173rd out of 183 countries on the Human Development Index, down from 113 out of 189 in 2010 before the conflict. Women face a real struggle in these adverse conditions. Many women end up being the breadwinners for their families when male partners are missing or detained. According to WILPF report, women in these conditions become more vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. They have to work to support their families as well as afford the cost of searching for their detained family members.
The economic burden can be even heavier for those who flee to neighboring countries. According to the UNHCR, more than a quarter of refugee households are headed by women. Access to work permits is very limited for Syrian refugees. In Turkey for example only 0.1% of Syrians stand to gain the right to work according to Turkish labor laws. In Lebanon, according to Amnesty International, the government has introduced restrictions which prohibit Syrians from working in occupations other than agriculture, hygiene and construction. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that 70% of Syrian refugee women who are employed work in agriculture or as domestic workers in Lebanon. This means they work in occupations which have low pay and little job security. A lot of women have been forced into the informal sector which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and sexual harassment.
Dire economic conditions have given rise to human trafficking in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan and Turkey, human trafficking takes the form of child marriage. There are many cases of wealthy men approaching families to marry their underage girls in return for money. Child marriage is seen as a coping strategy by some families to help these girls get out of the miserable life in camps. Poor living conditions may also force women into prostitution. In April 2016, the largest ever human trafficking network was uncovered in Lebanon in which 75 Syrian women were forced into sexual slavery.
ACCESS TO HEALTH
Access to health services has been largely interrupted both in Syria and in surrounding countries. Syrian medical facilities have been regularly targeted by military operations since 2011. It is estimated that 740 doctors and staff have been killed in more than 360 attacks on hospitals in Syria. The medical sector has also been affected by the damages done to the electricity and water infrastructure. In neighboring countries, many Syrians who are not registered as refugees don’t have access to health facilities. In Jordan, It is estimated that 45% of those living outside camps are unable to register and therefore not granted access to health services. In Lebanon, a large majority of health services is privately owned and often too expensive for refugees, even for those lucky enough to find paid work.
These conditions affect women gravely. They limit women’s and girls’ access to all healthcare, as well as to necessary reproductive health services. According to a report submitted by MADRE to UN Universal Periodic Review, pregnant women in Syria are frequently unable to access hospitals for necessary care. In addition, an increasing number of women have been forced to give birth through cesarean sections to be in control of the timing of their delivery to avoid traveling in insecure environments while in labor. The UN Population Fund found in 2014 that 200,000 pregnant women gave birth in unsafe conditions, lacking medical care.
Media coverage of the Syrian conflict often bears a military lens to portray men at war but tend to overlook the plight of other members of society such as women and children. The war dramatically changes every aspect of a woman’s life and directly threatens her wellbeing. In conflict, women have limited access to health services, face increased risks of targeted violence, and often carry the family’s economic burden. Whether it is in a war zone or in a refugee camp, women are particularly vulnerable and it is crucial to support efforts to protect them.