The 2018 Voices from Syria report has found that male aid workers stationed in the war-ridden country are sexually exploiting local women. The disturbing revelation exposed that men have been withholding food and other aid from Syrian women unless they provide sexual favors in return.
The report, which was published by the United Nations Population Fund, has cited numerous examples of abuse. Women and girls are being forced to temporarily marry officials, aid distributors offer to drive them to their homes only if the men are allowed inside, and necessary supplies are not given unless sexual services are received.
Widows, divorcees, female Internally Displaced Persons, and other women “without male protectors” are reported as the most vulnerable to the abuse.
Aid workers who were interviewed by BBC admitted that the exploitation is so prevalent that many women are refusing to go to distribution centers, for fear of being accused of trading their bodies in exchange for the aid they bring home. Workers revealed that some humanitarian agencies are aware of the issue but are choosing to ignore it.
While the UN claims to have had no knowledge of the abuse, the exploitation of Syrian women has been an ongoing issue for years. It was first reported three years ago by Danielle Spencer, a humanitarian advisor. Spencer was informed about the allegations by Syrian women in a refugee camp in Jordan.
“I remember one woman crying in the room and she was very upset about what she had experienced,” Spencer told BBC. “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 supposed to be receiving aid from, then asking you to have sex with him and withholding aid from you.”
In June 2015, the International Rescue Committee surveyed 190 women and girls from the area and found that 40 percent had experienced an act of sexual violence while seeking supplies at a distribution center.
Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told BBC that it’s “important to understand that in any aid emergency there is a risk of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, and to abuse somebody who is in need of assistance is despicable.”
“The mere suggestion that the UN can somehow control the situation in a war zone is rather simplistic and disconnected from the reality of what an aid operation looks like in an open and fierce conflict,” he continued.
Despite the IRC’s and Spencer’s findings, the abuse was swept under the rug for years.
“The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women’s bodies to be sacrificed,” Spencer said. “Somewhere there has been a decision made that it is OK for women’s bodies to continue to be used, abused and violated, in order for aid to be delivered for a larger group of people.”
The ongoing abuse can no longer be ignored. It’s horrible enough that these women have to rely on international aid for survival, but for them to fear this aid is unacceptable. Action must be taken to prevent the sexual exploitation of Syrian women and girls.
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