Sexual exploitation of Syrian refugee women: Real and virtual faces

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A Syrian woman refugee in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Facebook page called “Syrian refugee women for marriage” caused outrage in Lebanon and elsewhere following its creation less than a week ago. While its authenticity is suspect, the brief existence of such a page and the reactions to it represent a symptom for a grander, more pressing issue: a serious need to confront the ongoing trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable Syrian refugee girls and women in the region.

On May 16, unknown persons created a Facebook page with the explicit aim of “helping men to marry Syrian refugee women.”

“We have female refugees from different parts of the Arab nation, and different ages and denominations,” it said. By Wednesday afternoon, it had garnered over 13,000 likes before it was finally removed by Facebook that evening,

In Lebanon, the local women's rights organization KAFA became aware of the page and called on the public to demand that Facebook's moderators shut it down.

“It provoked us,” Maya al-Ammar, KAFA's media coordinator told Al-Akhbar. “[The page's administrators] were so blunt in what they were saying. 'All types of women of different ages'. As if they were selling women like products.”

The offensive page, “Syrian refugee women for marriage,” provided no contact details nor did it explain how such a connection by interested men to Syrian refugee women would be made. The page had promised to “set rules and ways of contact soon.”

“We tried to pressure Facebook, but they did not close the page immediately. They responded to us saying that there was not enough evidence and limited reason to,” Ammar noted.

“It seems that sexism is not a crime for them.”

“It's a strange page,” Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy director for Middle East and North Africa, told Al-Akhbar. “It look[ed] like a proto-page, there were no numbers or administrators.”

But the strong reactions once more people knew of the pages while they existed has brought out a major tragedy to the fore, that of the ongoing trafficking and exploitation of Syrian refugee girls and women in various Arab countries.

Tip of the Iceberg

Throughout the region and beyond, women in weak positions have been exploited, especially during upheavals and war, in forms of physical and sexual abuse, early or desperate marriages to economically well-off men, or on a larger scale that is shaped by the dehumanization and commodification of the female body, among many more acts.

As violence and warfare intensified since the eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the exploitation of Syrian refugees, especially women, has grown as well. Numerous documentations by NGOs have materialized in the past three years highlighting the deplorable circumstances.

In November 2013, HRW issued a report documenting the exploitation of Syrian refugee women. Based on interviews with twelve Syrian refugee women in Lebanon, all stated they experienced sexual assault, harassment, or attempted sexual exploitation, sometimes repeatedly, by employers, landlords, local faith-based aid distributors, and community members in Beirut, the Bekaa, and North and South Lebanon.

In one case, Hala, a 53 year-old woman from Damascus, whose husband was detained by the Syrian government, “suffered sexual harassment or attempted exploitation in nine of the 10 households,” she worked at as a house cleaner in an unnamed Beirut suburb.

“Male employers tried to touch her breasts, coerce her into sex, or procure her 16-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage,” she said. “They would say: ‘We will give you more money if you perform a sexual favor or give us your daughter,’” HRW’s report disclosed.

Similarly, Amnesty International noted in a report released on September 2013 regarding harassment and the practice of early marriages of Syrian women and girls in Jordan highlighted how the nature of vulnerability entrenches and expands problematic practices:

According to discussions I had with UN and aid workers, in the Zaatari camp the almost non-existent privacy due to proximity between tents, as well as widespread gang activity and the lack of security have played a significant role in the continuation of this practice by the families living there. While this reality does not mean the risks associated with the practice are any less serious, it highlights the entrenched nature of the practice and how difficult it is to combat.

Yet, despite these reports by NGOs and the media, the detailed contours of the sexual exploitation of Syrian refugees women and girls are still not entirely clear.

“We know this is happening, but there are no overall numbers. It is hard to get statistics because rarely is this reported. Only small assessments or cases are recorded, and a nation-wide study [in Lebanon] has not been made yet,” Ammar had said.

“Syrian women are being exploited,” she stressed. “They are being trafficked, abused, and easily recruited by pimps into prostitution rings. Their vulnerability is being manipulated.”

The Virtual Face of Exploitation

The virtual manifestations in turn reflect this system, and are equally abundant. In this particular case concerning Syrian refugee women, the recently spotlighted Facebook page is not the first nor will it be the last to emerge.

“Maybe this Facebook page will give a face to the issue,” Houry said. “It's the visible tip of the iceberg, and part of a broader problem. It is a reminder of the vulnerability of Syrian women and girls. There are real life intermediaries doing this to them in many Arab countries.”

Like the realities on the ground, the virtual world is as obscure and difficult to combat.

There is either a lack of will or ability by the authorities to oversee and prevent the cropping up of thousands of such sites, which can appear again and again under different names on Facebook, Twitter, or online forms that basically profit and trade women and girls in an open manner.

As Hassan Hassan, a journalist for the Dubai-based newspaper The National reported in September 2012:

“It is common to see on Arabic online forums requests by men 'seeking marriage from Syrian girls.' At a price ranging from 500 to 1,000 Saudi riyals ($130 to $260), girls are reportedly being taken from refugee camps in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is most often named as the destination, but a similar trend is reported in other countries including Iraq and Turkey.”

“The comments on various websites - in the thousands - underscore the plight of women in the Arab world in general, and misogynist attitudes persist despite the supposedly enlightened popular revolts across the region,” he added.

This trend continues unabashedly, the realities on the ground and the virtual world feeding off each other.

“The best way to counter [trafficking and exploitation] is getting the authorities to be on the lookout for these intermediaries. Law enforcement need to be involved, and there needs to be protective mechanisms such as support lodgings, ensuring education, hotlines to help,” Houry said.

“But the longer people remain as refugees, the more vulnerable they will be and the more work on the ground will be needed,” HRW’s deputy director added.

While the “Syrian refugee women for marriage” page has been removed, the real problems will not vanish as easily. Exploitation of the vulnerable continues and thrives, and its virtual reflections will regularly sprout up, as long as there are no concerted, tangible efforts on the ground to combat these acts by all.

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