In a bleak irony, today—International Women’s Day—is also a public holiday in Syria, commemorating the 1963 coup that brought the Baathist party to power and saw Hafez al-Assad take over as commander of the Syrian air force. Assad eventually became president of Syria and, for all his sins, was a proponent of equal rights for women. Under the rule of his son, Bashar al-Assad, however, Syria has become a living hell for its women, particularly for the millions who have had to flee their homes since the country’s crisis began two years ago.
In the past week, the Syrian refugee crisis has grabbed headlines around the world as the number of Syrians who have had to seek asylum abroad reached 1 million. But there is another, less-discussed displacement crisis unfolding inside Syria. Syria’s internally displaced population passed the 2 million mark months ago—by some estimates, there are more than 3 million Syrians uprooted within their country, most out of reach of international aid and media attention. The consequences of this crisis have been catastrophic for all displaced persons, but particularly for women and girls. International Women’s Day is a chance to give these consequences the attention they deserve, but have lacked so far.
Among the litany of abuses that characterize the Syrian conflict, rape has emerged as a defining element of the displacement crisis. The International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency, reports that among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, rape was a primary motive for their flight. Inside Syria, increasing incidents of sexual violence suggest that rape is being used as a weapon of war. As the assistant U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported recently to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the displacement crisis is “accompanied by gender-based crimes, deliberate victimization of women and children, and a frightening array of assaults on human dignity.” Attacks are often carried out in public, compounding the humiliation and stigma endured by those who survive.
In part as a result of such violence, many families have been displaced multiple times. Few have been able to find secure shelter or adequate assistance. For example, since January, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has been able to make only two deliveries of assistance to the internally displaced across conflict lines. While these convoys are a logistical and diplomatic feat, the distribution of 15,000 blankets and 1,000 tents by the February 13 mission is radically disproportionate to the millions in need. According to recent reports, UNHCR’s cash-assistance programs have so far reached an estimated 25,000 internally displaced Syrians, a tiny proportion of the internally displaced population.
Inadequate assistance and growing impoverishment have led to a vicious cycle in which women and girls who have fled sexual and gender-based violence are exposed to exploitation as they struggle to find food and fuel to survive. Domestic-violence rates increase in such circumstances, and many desperate families marry off their daughters at younger ages than usual in order to secure some meager protection for them, and reduce the number of mouths to feed in a household.
In the absence of a still-elusive resolution to the conflict, what can be done to support women and girls displaced inside Syria? First, as the U.N.’s former humanitarian aid czar John Holmes has said, “Donors need to step up, recognize the severity of the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria, and face the virtual inevitability that this is going to get much worse and last much longer than initially anticipated.” Increased support is needed not only for Syria’s refugees, but also for the internally displaced. Renewed efforts are required to explore how more aid can be delivered to the displaced in areas outside the control of the Syrian government, including by transporting supplies across the borders of neighboring countries, building on the current work of local NGOs and international groups such as MSF.
Second, more attention is needed to the task of preventing and responding to sexual violence against Syrian women and girls. This must include medical care and counseling, enhanced security in camps and settlements occupied by displaced persons, and the provision of economic assistance to decrease the prevalence of early marriages and exploitation, including survival sex. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has launched an initiative to investigate and combat impunity for sexual violence in Syria, and as president of the G8 in 2013 the U.K. will promote a new international protocol on investigating and documenting sexual violence in conflict. G-8 members and other key governments should give full support to this initiative. International Women’s Day is the ideal moment to mark a turning point from the impunity and neglect that has characterized responses to violations of the rights and needs of displaced women in Syria to date.