Whole of Syria Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility: Voices from Syria 2018 - Assessment Findings of the Humanitarian Needs Overview

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Executive Summary

1.1 Overview of findings

The 2018 assessments confirmed that gender-based violence, particularly verbal harassment, domestic violence (including family violence against women and girls), child marriages and the fear of sexual violence including sexual harassment, continue to pervade the lives of women and girls in Syria inside and outside the home, resulting in very few spaces where women and girls feel safe. The fear of sexual violence, often associated with abduction, is a concern raised by women and girls, contributing to psychosocial stress and further limitation of their movements.

The restriction on freedom of movement of women and girls also inhibits their access to services, humanitarian aid and ultimately their rights. The shame and stigma surrounding sexual violence contributes to survivors not talking about violence when it happens. Women and girls also fear honour killing as a result of sexual violence. Families arrange marriages for girls, believing it will protect them and ease the financial burden on the family. Girls are reportedly being married younger. The socio-economic situation, lack of livelihood opportunities, and increased poverty is ultimately leading more women to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex.

Effects of extended conflict

The length of the crisis and the deep-rooted patriarchal structures underpinning Syrian society, in conjunction with the mounting lawlessness in some areas, are normalising this violence, with women’s rights continuing to be eroded.

Types of gender-based violence

Child marriage:

Marriage of children under 18 years old is not a new phenomenon in Syria. However, with the protracted nature of the crisis child marriage has evolved from a cultural practice to a coping mechanism in the crisis. Families arrange marriages for girls, believing that it will protect them and also needing to ease the financial burden of the family. According to GBV experts, this trend has been increasing in 2017 due to the crisis, and there is an understanding that girls are being married at younger ages.

She has made her 15-year-old daughter marry because she was afraid of assault or kidnapping. When she is married, her husband protects her. (Woman from Dana sub-district, Idleb governorate)

Domestic violence:

When a man gets angry, he hits his wife with whatever is in his hand. (Woman from Al-Khashniyyeh sub-district, Quneitra governorate)

Domestic violence is one of the most commonly mentioned types of violence in the qualitative data. It often occurs with physical, emotional or verbal violence, sexual violence and economic violence. Emotional/verbal violence could take the form of yelling, insults and threats (e.g. of divorce). Similarly, the crisis brought on changes in traditional gender roles in some areas, where women began to work outside the house to contribute to or solely provide the family’s income. This has also been linked to increases in domestic violence, as men perceive the change in family dynamics as a threat.

Family violence:

Women also recount violence perpetrated by other family members, such in-laws and in particular the brother of their husband. Violence against children by their parents was also noted as a concern. Boys and girls are both at risk of violence at the hands of their parents or caregivers, more frequently noted as fathers and uncles rather than mothers or aunts.

Sexual violence:

Sexual violence is one of the most frequently cited types of violence discussed by participants in the qualitative data and mostly by women in both qualitative and quantitative data sets. Women discussed daily fear of sexual violence including street harassment and rape.

Women and girls are the most vulnerable to sexual violence because of their weakness and male domination. (Adolescent boy from Saraqab sub-district, Idleb governorate)

Participants in qualitative assessments noted that the purpose of kidnapping and abduction of women and girls was often associated with rape and sexual assault. Displacement and living in camps are noted as being particularly unsafe environments for women and girls and places were the risks for sexual violence were high. Reasons given were a lack of privacy (in tents, or in latrines), overcrowding and mix of people who do not know each other, poverty and financial desperation, and chaos or lawlessness.

Overall, the shame and social stigma associated with women and girls’ virginity deeply influence both the impact of sexual violence and the coping mechanisms available to survivors. Murder of women and girls by their family members in the name of honour, victim blaming and forced marriage to the perpetrators were mentioned without prompting more frequently this year compared to last.

Sexual harassment:

Shouts, insults, threats and other street harassment of a sexual nature by men and boys toward women and girls poses a daily nuisance and fear, often becoming an obstacle prohibiting them from leaving their homes to access markets, services, distributions, school and work.

Sexual exploitation:

Assessments confirmed that women and girls also face sexual exploitation. Poverty, displacement, being head of household (often linked to new work places), coupled with gender inequalities are all understood to contribute to this form of gender-based violence. 13-year-old girls go to the bakeries to make little money. I know that people exploit those girls sexually in return for buying bread from them. This is very common. (Man from At Tall sub-district, Rural Damascus)


Respondents of qualitative assessments of all ages and sexes spoke about the fear of kidnapping. Abduction of women and girls was more commonly associated with rape and sexual assault or even forced marriage, compared to detention and forced conscription for men and boys, or robbery and ransom for those with money.

Some accidents related to sexual violence occur in our community. A young man kidnapped a girl because she refused to marry him. (Adolescent girl from Ma’arrat An Nu’man sub-district, Idleb governorate)

Detention and torture:

There are reports of first-hand accounts of women who had been arrested and detained in relation to the crisis, that provide details of women’s experiences during detention and after release.

Population at risk

Findings from all data sources show that women and girls are disproportionally affected by gender-based violence in Syria, such as early marriage, sexual violence and domestic violence. Displaced women and girls, specifically those living in camps, shelters and informal settlements across the country were seen to be at particular risk of GBV, with reports in some areas of the country of widows and divorced women being placed in separate sections of camps. With regards to sexual violence, early marriage and movement restrictions, adolescent girls are particularly affected. Fear of kidnapping and sexual violence would further these restrictions, often leading to families preventing their daughters of going to school. Overall, women and girls are described as in need of a ‘male protector’.

Widows and separated/divorced girls and women were perceived to be at particular risk to sexual violence, emotional and verbal abuse, forced marriage, polygamy and serial temporary marriages, movement restrictions, economic violence and exploitation, among others. Widows and divorced women and girls expressed fear that their children would be taken away from them or that they would be forced to leave their children in order to provide for income. When talking about the reasons why children would be separated or abandoned in the community, death of the caregiver was mentioned most often, followed by the re-marriage of parents, in particular the mother, and thirdly divorce. The lack or loss of civil documentation and/or property-related documents has also major implications for widows and separated/ divorced women and girls. FGD participants described how not having a family booklet could hinder widows and separated/divorced women and girls in accessing to distributions, as they would be considered as part of her parents’ family.

Female-headed households are also associated with an increased risk of sexual violence. People with disability (PWD) were identified as particularly affected by violence, including GBV, in Syria.
Coping mechanism There is much shame and social stigma associated with women and girls’ virginity and upholding traditional gender roles. In many cases of violence, even when families recognize that the act is non-consensual, the blame is placed on the shoulders of the woman. This deeply influences the coping mechanisms available to prevent and minimize the risks of GBV, and also for survivors to cope after experiencing GBV.

The most frequently cited way for women and girls to cope after experiencing GBV was to tell no one about it, to remain silent and keep it a secret. The most comment cited strategy to minimize the risks of GBV for women and girls was to change or limit their movement, appearance and behaviour. Women and girls either choose or are forced by their husband or family to stay at home, to only leave the house during the day, or only leave the house only if accompanied by a husband, brother or parent. Other strategies reported were non-disclosure, dress restrictions, running away, selfdefence/ carrying a weapon - child marriage, divorce, survival sex and relying on humanitarian assistance.

Some women and girls did describe positive coping mechanisms being able to talk to close friends about experiences of violence, to rely on their family’s support, to seek justice, to rely on their own psychological strength, or to seek health or protection services as a means of coping with violence.
Movement restrictions Men, women, girls and boys reported restrictions on their movement due to safety issues linked with the crisis, such as fear of detention, kidnapping and arrest, shelling and explosions and crime.

Availability and access to GBV services across Syria

In 2017, the geographical reach of GBV services has significantly increased, alongside the number of services being provided. In August 2017, 38 more sub-districts were being reached with GBV activities compared to December 2016, bringing it to a total of 121 sub-districts. Furthermore, during this period, the number of partner organizations offering GBV services has increased from 44 to 71. Data sources confirmed satisfaction with the GBV services where they existed, especially in relation to individual and group counselling sessions, empowerment activities, such as vocational training courses, and awareness raising sessions. Participants in FGDs expressed a need for more services for GBV survivors and 59% of communities reporting needing women and girl’s centers. Distance to service delivery points and lack of transportation, especially in rural areas, family restrictions and a lack of trust or fear of stigmatization are the main barriers for women and girls to access GBV services. A lack of awareness about the existence of GBV services was mentioned as another barrier to accessing services as well as the lack of clear referral pathways for GBV survivors in some areas of the country.

Access to humanitarian assistance

As in the 2017 HNO assessments, concerns with access to humanitarian assistance were raised. Distribution sites are often perceived as unsafe places, which are dominated by men. In some areas people described how they hesitated going to crowded distributions sites, especially in camp settings, given that these were sometimes targets for aerial bombings. At the same time, participants of FGD said that women and girls benefitted from distributions, as the whole family would be assisted. Women and girls would receive aid, but often indirectly.