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Syrian women at enormous risk of physical and sexual violence: Women share their stories with UNFPA

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Syrian ref ugees crossing Syria – Iraq border. August, 2013 © UNFPA

“I don’t care about food, I don’t care about a house or money, all I want is to protect my daughters” says Samira, who arrived in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan three months ago with her four children after a two-week journey through Syria. Samira’s story is not unusual -- fear of sexual violence is commonly cited by refugees as one of the reasons for fleeing Syria.

When conflict erupts, populations who have lost or fled their homes need urgent assistance including shelter, food, water and medical care. Yet for women, displacement and destruction are not the only threats during emergencies. In times of crisis, women are at enormous risk of physical and sexual violence – from strangers, from neighbours, and even family members.

Around two million women and girls of reproductive age have already been displaced inside Syria and around 500,000 women have been forced to leave their homes to take refuge to neighbouring countries. These women have limited access to critical services and have little protection.

Radwa, the mother of two young twin daughters, sought refuge in Lebanon and now lives with 12 people in a two-room apartment. “I don’t have money; I work in the morning to bring money to feed my children,” she says, I never thought I will work in my life; I was totally dependent on my husband. I hear a lot of bad talk from strangers. I want to live, I want to feed my children.” When asked about her husband, she said “I don’t know, he just left and abandoned me,” adding “I don’t want him -- he was beating me and the children”.

In desperate circumstances, many young girls and their families turn to marriage to seek protection. Diari, 16 –years old, ran away from Domiz camp in Iraq with a man she loved three weeks ago hoping that he could rescue her from living in a camp, even though her father did not agree to it. The man promised Diari they would travel together outside the region. She gave him money she stole from her parents. After taking the money, the man left Diari alone in an apartment and fled. The mother approached the UNFPA women centre in Domiz camp, who in turn helped the girl return to her family. The girl is now attending counselling, and the UNFPA team is working to give her skills training.

Rape, sexual exploitation, intimate partner violence, and early marriages are scourges that follow women and girls during conflict. If a woman has been raped, she has just three days to access care to prevent the potential transmission of HIV, one week to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and sometimes just a few hours to ensure that life-threatening injuries do not become fatal. “While medical services are essential, they are not the only lifesaving aspect of emergency gender-based violence interventions. Even with such services in place, the path for a survivor to reach them is blocked with hurdles of stigma, shame, fear and real threats to her security,” said Daniel Baker, UNFPA Syria regional response advisor.

UNFPA, along with NGO partners and United Nations agencies, are using women safe spaces and other facilities to offer counselling and psychosocial support, connect survivors to assistance and safety programmes, to educate women and to raise the awareness of communities on gender-based violence. UNFPA is also working to ensure that gender-based violence experts are in field of conflict-affected areas to make it possible that prevention and response are integrated across sectors and that accountability for gender-based violence standards are embedded within the response of the humanitarian community in times of conflict.

Gender-based violence: Situation in the region

Syrian refugees are facing different forms of gender-based violence such as sexual violence, early and forced marriage, and domestic violence. For example, in Lebanon, an “Assessment of reproductive health and gender-based violence among displaced Syrian women in Lebanon” conducted in July-September 2012 found 7 per cent of 460 surveyed women had suffered sexual aggression and that 21 per cent of 460 surveyed women reported having a female family member slapped or hit.

UNFPA response

UNFPA Lebanon supports awareness-raising sessions on gender-based violence: A total of 780 Syrian and Lebanese women and girls have been reached in over 15 geographical areas. UNFPA Lebanon equipped a total of 22 service delivery points throughout Lebanon with post-rape kits for the possible treatment of 300 adults and 60 children

UNFPA Jordan: The number of survivors supported through multi-sectorial services (including women, men, boys and girls) in the last three months (June- August 2013) is 224 . Around 20,000 women, boys, men, and girls were reached through prevention activities such as awareness raising during the same period, both in and outside refugee camps.

UNFPA Iraq: The women’s space centre in Domiz camp provided counseling services to 49 women, of which 13 cases were referred to specialized services for for advanced psychosocial support. The centre also raised the awareness of 63 women and girls on gender-based violence in and outside Domiz and Erbil camps.

About UNFPA

UNFPA delivers a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

The agency aims to achieve universal access to maternal and reproductive health (including family planning), promoting reproductive rights, reducing maternal mortality and accelerating progress on the agenda of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Millennium Development Goals. UNFPA also focuses on improving the lives of youths and women by advocating for human rights and gender equality and by promoting the understanding of population dynamics. Population dynamics, including growth rates, age structure, fertility and mortality, and migration have an effect on every aspect of human, social and economic progress. Sexual and reproductive health and women’s empowerment all powerfully affect and are influenced by population trends.