07.24.134:45 AM ET

Syria’s Women Face Violence, ‘Survival Sex’ Abroad

Fleeing the civil war in their home country, Syria’s female refugees are struggling with domestic violence and being exploited and harassed for sex by aid workers and strangers alike. Jamie Dettmer reports from Lebanon.

They have escaped one war only to find themselves as casualties and combatants in another—a conflict waged against them less publicly and not with bullets or missiles. The weapons employed are sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, and the exploitation by the unscrupulous of economic distress, forcing some to agree to prostitution, others to sell off teenage daughters as child brides.

For many Syrian women who have sought sanctuary in neighboring Lebanon from a civil war that has left an estimated 100,000 dead since the conflict started in March 2011, their refuge is laden with new menace and suffering—compounding their grief over the deaths of family or friends or their depression at the loss of homes. Even within their families there’s sometimes no safety, with jobless husbands frustrated with the stress and indignity of living as refugees lashing out, beating wives and hitting kids.

Maryam, a 31-year-old mother of five from Damascus, says she’s afraid the whole time and living in fear in Lebanon. She says there’s no safety for her. Outside the three-room apartment that she and her husband and children share with another six relatives there’s virtual nonstop sexual harassment, she says—from mild forms of uninvited verbal flirtation to groping and forceful demands for sexual favors by storeowners or officials. And even male aid workers aren’t beyond wanting to trade sex for help.

A divorced relative, a mother of two kids, experienced that recently, says Maryam. “One of the men at an NGO told her that if you accept to sleep with me, if we can have a sexual relations, every time I have any kind of access to assistance, it will be yours. It will have your name on it.”

Inside the overcrowded apartment there’s little relief either. As she talked, Maryam frequently wrung her hands. “My relationship with me and my husband has changed a lot since we arrived in Lebanon. Because of all of this stress and fearful situations we are living in. My husband never used to hit any of the children now he’ll hit them, he’ll scream at me, shout at me,” she said during an interview at a community center that The Daily Beast was asked not to identify, to protect the identities of the women seeking help there.

Over three quarters of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and they make up a population that is highly vulnerable to exploitation and becoming more so as the refugee influx into Lebanon increases, straining the resources of the international and Lebanese aid community. Just over 600,000 refugees have registered with the U.N., but the Lebanese government estimates there are more than a million Syrian refugees now—a 25 percent growth in Lebanon’s population. Another million are predicted by year’s end.

Sixteen-year-old Ishtar is one of the casualties in what many social workers see as a war on women. She fled the Syrian town of Homs along with her mother and older sister last December after the death of her car-mechanic father, who was killed in an airstrike. She and her sister have been begging in the upscale Beirut districts of Hamra and Verdun to supplement what charity they scratch together from NGOs. In the last few weeks both have succumbed to the aggressive sexual harassment they encounter daily on the streets and in desperation for cash engaged in what aid workers describe as survival sex.

Ishtar, a frail thing, made further waif-like in her black hijab and jilbab, says most of the men have treated her roughly in hurried encounters in cars, abandoned buildings or in wastelands surrounding the city. Most men don’t use a condom and she confides she averages about half-a-dozen men a week. They pay her about $20 or $30. (Social workers say prices are even lower outside Beirut and in parts of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley women are selling themselves for as little as $7.)

“They treat me like an animal,” she says through a Lebanese translator. “But then that is what I have become.” She flashes through different emotions—defiance, anger, and shame—as she justifies, as much to herself as to me, what she’s doing.

“There is a big problem of prostitution,” says Rima ZaaZaa of the Lebanese NGO Tadamun wa Tanmia (Solidarity and Development), who’s helping abused women. “There are certain group shelters that are known for prostitution. It is a final resort for some women. You have to look at it from the human side—I am not justifying it, but when the people are lacking the minimum standards of living what are they meant to do?”

Syrian women have become prey, says Maryam: “A Lebanese neighbor told me, ‘You Syrian women and girls are tempting the men here in Lebanon and you are making these temptations and seductions for them.’ I told her that the men are approaching us. They are making use of the crisis and the bad conditions we are living in.”

That is why Ala, a 26-year-old mother of three small children, says she prefers to avoid mingling. “I try to keep myself separate, to stay in the apartment as much as possible and not to mingle. It makes me feel safer.” Although like Maryam there are dangers at home too; her husband also has become aggressive with her. “I can say our lives have changed a lot.”

Could she persuade him to go to counseling, if there were opportunities available? She laughs wryly. “I wouldn’t dare to do this, even if I want to, I wouldn’t dare. He would say, ‘I am the man. I know what is right and what is wrong.”

The dangers faced by Syrian refugee women and children in Jordan—from rape, and kidnapping to forced prostitution to sham marriages of underage girls to wealthy Gulf Arabs—have been well documented by the international media. In Jordan most refugees are housed in large camps—115,000 alone at the Zaatari camp, making it Jordan’s fifth-largest city—and digging out the abuse that women and young girls are enduring is in some ways easier, since it is more visible.

In Lebanon the government has refused to allow the building of camps. Refugees are scattered throughout the country—the biggest concentrations are in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon—living where they can in shabby rental accommodation, makeshift shelters, and abandoned and incomplete buildings often without doors, windows and with no privacy. They pay exorbitant rents for over-crowded shelter. Some live with Lebanese relatives, but only a small proportion.

Widespread dispersal along with a shortage of funds and staff makes it harder for aid agencies and social-welfare NGOs to monitor what’s happening to refugee women, to detect abuse and to offer solutions except to a lucky few, according to Emmanuelle Compingt of the UNHCR, who is overseeing a coordination effort between the U.N. agency and 22 partner NGOs on sexual and gender-based violence. “I think reported cases of child-bride marriages, prostitution, sexual abuse, and gender-based violence are the tip of a large iceberg,” she says. “We are seeing every kind of case.”

While confirmed statistics are in short supply, anecdotal data isn’t. All the NGOs are reporting rising trends when it comes to the marrying-off of young girls, survival sex, rapes and sexual abuse and violence toward women within families by husbands or other male relatives. There are about 50 community centers and 20 safe-space facilities catering for women around the country and all are dealing with more cases than they can handle.

Naysayers about claims of widespread abuse of Syrian refugee women dismiss reports of rising prostitution, for example, or widespread sexual harassment as over-egged, claiming there are isolated cases. Raise the subject of prostitution or survival sex with the authorities and they immediately talk about the trafficking of women, saying there’s little evidence of extensive trafficking, pointing to figures from the Internal Security Forces showing there were 27 trafficked women in 2011 with exactly the same number reported last year.

The UNHCR’s Compingt thinks they are missing the point and that forced prostitution doesn’t necessarily mean women are being trafficked—rather, she says they are being forced by their desperate circumstances to resort to selling their bodies, and men are happy to exploit their plight. “The women may be on one level willing but it is a forced willingness. They are being exploited for everything—when trying to get jobs or accommodation or extra food for their families.”

They are unlikely to go to the ISF to lodge a complaint, says Compingt. “They are afraid to, ashamed.”

Most Syrian refugees remain tight-lipped about the problems they are facing—whether harassment from mainly Lebanese men or the violence or sexual abuse their husbands or male relatives may mete out to them. Conservative and traditional, they fear the taint or they worry about the Lebanese using it to heap ignominy on Syrians and to blame them.

“They are not accustomed to coming forward,” says women’s center director Rima ZaaZaa. “Of course it isn’t just Syrian women. We Arab women are not being raised to look out for ourselves. All the time we are raised to be submissive.” She says sometimes she gets depressed about the scale of the problems she perceives. But then she remembers what she is trying to achieve: “to provide the opportunities for women to think about themselves as human beings, who have needs, who have desires and who have rights that should be fulfilled.”