Kalyani R Suresh
Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
The violent unrest in Syria is on the verge of completing 10 years of conflict. What started as resistance towards President Bashar al-Assad has already taken thousands of lives and caused widespread civil disruption. The civil war saw the rise of several rebel groups leading to a major battle between people who support the presidential rule and the ones against it. The intervention of the foreign forces like Russia, the United States of America and Iran intensified the situation calling for global attention on the issue. Though the fighting seems to be almost in the final phase, the challenges continue to remain for President Bashar al-Assad to win back some more regions which are still not under the control of the government (World Politics Review, 2021). According to the reports of The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA), the humanitarian crisis in the country resulted in around 5.6 million people fleeing to other countries for shelter, mainly Turkey, Lebanon and others (Syria emergency, n.d). Amidst all this chaos for almost a decade now, the pain and the suffering the citizens have gone through, especially women and the young girls, is a question of utmost importance.
Women in Syria: Before 2011
Discriminatory practices against the Syrian women was a common sight in the country even before the conflict started. The laws in the Syrian Arab Republic considered women to be inferior to men thereby subjecting them to gender-based violence influenced by patriarchal beliefs. With limited public life, women were expected to refrain from accessing public spaces and taking part in decision making forums. In the pre-conflict period in 2009, almost 1300 rape cases were reported in the country as per the official statistics (UN-CEDAW 2014). But the actual numbers could be even higher, as many of the cases went unreported because of the fear of facing social exclusion and the pressure on the girls to marry their rapists. The personal status law which describes an individual’s right in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance showed discrimination against women and gives them little say in the decisions made. Many women have even been victims of honour killing, for being suspected of indulging in sexual affairs or even being raped, which many people consider to be a disgrace to their family.
Impact of the Civil War on Women
The stereotypical attitude of people which serves as a barrier for women’s rights, aggravated the situation more in times of the conflict. Since the year 2011, sexual violence against women by both the government officials and the armed forces rose to shocking levels. Sexual assault was used as a weapon during the war to intimidate the civilians to create fear. The UN treated around 38000 victims in the year 2013, who were victims to such brutalities (Human Rights and Gender Justice (HRGJ) Clinic, MADRE, & The Women’s International League for Peace and Fre, 2016). Reports also suggest that many girls were kidnapped by the government forces and then later released. They were projected as rape victims which exposed them to shame and disgrace in the society (HRGJ, MADRE, & WILPF, 2016). In such instances, women were usually alienated or killed by their families as the family considered them a ‘social stigma’. The reason why women who have been victims of rape are seen as a disgrace is because once physically abused, they are impure and honour killings were a way to cleanse the family of the shame. The lack of adequate legal support for women was also another cause why sexual violence became common in the country, especially during the war. Not just the Syrian authorities, but many other armed groups were also found to have committed sexual abuse by mid-2014. In a community where honour killings are high, the survival and quality of life of a rape victim poses a major question given that they sometimes have to face death threats even from their own family. An incident took place in 2018, when a member of the Free Syrian Army, killed his own sister because of the rumours that she had brought shame to the family by committing adultery (Alomar, 2018). The video of the murder had gone viral and traumatized the civilian population. Such practices were a way to keep such cases hidden to keep up the family reputation. Some parents even resorted to getting their daughters married off at an early age to protect them from sexual abuse. Even after fleeing and joining the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries, women have had to face harassment and violence, sometimes, in exchange for procuring the essentials they need for their survival. Domestic violence had also risen which was said to be a result of frustrations from being unemployed in the camps (Leigh, 2014). From the year the conflict started, there have been multiple cases reported where men in military uniforms would barge into the house, abuse and rape women for their political choices. (HRGJ, MADRE, & WILPF, 2016)
The civil war also impacted the roles in the workforce. Before the conflict, only 13 percent of working women were engaged in the labour force, which was the lowest in the world (Constant, Nataraj, & Afashe, 2019). This was because of the lack of freedom of movement and the limited public life they were entitled to. The areas which were thickly populated with civilians faced massive destruction from the use of explosives which led to infrastructural loss. This had a deadly impact on the people as their traditional income was affected and women had to take up more responsibilities to take care of their families. Many were forced to take up the burden of running their house as the breadwinners because their husbands were either killed, escaped or went missing. By the year 2015, around 17 percent of households in Syria were run by the females in the family (Hilton, 2017). This was seen by many women as an opportunity to step out of their house and earn for their family. More than a quarter of Syrian women who were refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan were seen to be engaged in the labour force as they realised there is a need to have a job to gain more societal acceptance and respect (Constant et al., 2019).
Even before the conflict, the facilities prevailing in the country were seen as insufficient, especially in the rural areas. The use of massive explosives had a detrimental impact on the healthcare system as well which was very fragile. The infrastructure was badly attacked creating a major health crisis. The aerial attacks in civilian areas, which included medical facilities, gave rise to the largest number of casualties with around 250000 people dead (HRGJ, MADRE, & WILPF, 2016). The ISIL and the armed groups deliberately targeted the health infrastructure, blocked the supply of medical essentials, prohibited refugee movement by closing the borders to make the civilians suffer by limiting their access to healthcare. The attack on healthcare restricted access to pregnant women, who were forced to give birth in unhealthy conditions and according to the reports by the United Nations Populations Fund, in 2014, around 200000 pregnant women had to deliver their babies in unfit conditions due to lack of availability of adequate medical care (UNFPA, 2014). Women who were raped and got pregnant also suffered from the attack on the healthcare system, as they could not get timely treatment for their physical and mental injuries. The lack of access to contraceptive measures made things worse which forced them to face the psychological issues that came along with an unwanted pregnancy.
Prior to the conflict, in the 1990s, parents were forced to send their children to school irrespective of their gender to tackle the low literacy rate. The war denied almost 2 million students, including girls, access to schools which resulted in the enrolment rate in schools falling from 72% in 2009 to 44% by 2013 (Thelwell, 2019). Lack of access to education made the girls more exposed to forced marriages since they did not have enough knowledge to fight against it. The fear of gender based sexual violence towards girls also made the parents refrain from sending their children to school. Studies also show that in the regions’ captured by the Islamic extremists, followed a curriculum which denied admission to girls in higher education institutions (Thelwell, 2019). In war zone areas, the government took measures to cut down the salary given to the female teachers to limit their role which in turn affected the income of a family dependent on it.
Even though the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 facilitates women’s participation in peace negotiations, no women were seen taking part in the Geneva peace talks that happened in 2014. The Russia-backed Syria peace conference held in the city of Sochi in 2018 also saw no representation from the Syrian women (Coulouris, 2018). Despite their active role in local negotiations to end the conflict, their voices still go unheard in international negotiations.
Initiatives by the UN Women
Many measures and strategies have been undertaken inside and outside the country to provide help to the women in Syria. The UN Women have been the most active in providing support by implementing various schemes to control the hardships of women. They have been working closely with the World Food Programme (WFP), a food assistance branch of the United Nations, to empower girls economically and to ensure women’s access to food (UN Women, 2016). They came up with a unique model called the ‘Oasis Empowerment Centre’ with an aim to handle the needs of the Syrian women who are refugees in Jordan (Herwig, n.d). The model has been constructed in the Za’atari camp and Azraq camp to provide opportunities to earn an income by providing training in skills such as sewing, computer classes, services in protection referral and many more. The cash for work programme initiated by the UN Women ensures 400 cash for work opportunities per day which enables them to learn different skills in different sectors and thousands of women have been able to benefit from this by gaining expertise (Herwig, n.d). The UN Women and WFP together built a blockchain to help the Syrian refugee women in Jordan keep their accounts with funds protected on a blockchain network (WFP, 2018). Such a model would help them to pay directly for their purchases at WFP contracted supermarkets. The reason why such a model was developed is to provide women access to technological innovation and make them equipped to deal with the digital world. Not just in Jordan, the UN Women have been also working on ways to help the women refugees in Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey by developing professional skills and conducting awareness programmes on sexual violence. They conducted two trainings in 2020 and 2021 in Turkey, along with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (UN Women Europe and Central Asia, 2021). The training puts emphasis on the importance of women empowerment and the need for their participation in peacebuilding. The organisation has also been engaged in launching campaigns to encourage the women activists in Syria to raise their voices on concerns regarding women’s right to participate in the peace negotiations.
With almost half the population in the country being females, it is disheartening to see how they are suppressed in all possible ways. The Syrian government must make amendments in the law that restrict a woman’s freedom and should ensure that practices such as honour killing, though it became illegal in 2009, are not carried out. Adequate measures need to be taken to prevent the officials from indulging in sexual violence and abortion should be legalised to avoid unwanted and unexpected pregnancies resulting from rape. Access to education must not be limited based on gender as this would give the girls the skills and knowledge required to shine in the world. Above all, as undertaken by the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy, there is a need for the inclusion and recognition of women in the sessions that are held at the global level which would give them a public space to raise their concerns and be a meaningful part in peace building in the country (Marouf, n.d).
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.