(NEW YORK) MintPress – As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, human rights groups are deeply concerned about the welfare of the country’s most vulnerable civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said recently that women and children comprised a large number of the victims killed and wounded by car bombs in and around the capital Damascus.
This comes on the heels of a Refugee International (RI) report that found Syrian women and girls are being targeted for rape on a massive scale.
“Rape and other forms of sexual violence are rampant in Syria. Armed actors routinely enter homes and rape women and girls in front of family members, sometimes killing them afterwards,” says Marcy Hersh, who recently returned from a trip to the region.
“Women are also raped and tortured while in prison. Survivors are extremely reluctant to report sexual violence or seek treatment because of stigma and strong social norms that treat rape as a dishonor to the family.”
Her account is similar to the reports out of Syria that the Women’s Media Center project Women Under Siege has been collecting for three months.
“We’ve seen many stories … in which multiple attackers, usually government forces, are said to gang rape a woman in her home,” said project director Lauren Wolfe
“Although we are unable to independently confirm these stories—Syria is simply too dangerous, and our research staff too small—they are consistent both internally and within the news and NGO reports telling similar stories from the Syrian conflict.”
“The data we have so far suggest sexualized violence is being used as a tool of war, although possibly haphazardly and not necessarily as an organized strategy,” said Karestan Koenen, associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the lead epidemiologist on the mapping project.
Even if they seek help, survivors in Syria have very limited access to medical or psychological services.
That, together with other violence against civilians, has created a huge displacement. According to UNHCR data, the total number of Syrian refugees, both registered and awaiting registration, was 537,701 as of Dec. 20.
Most of them reside in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
No safe haven
But even after reaching the relative peace of neighboring countries, says Hersh, “these women and girls remain vulnerable to multiple forms of gender-based violence (GBV).”
Domestic violence is endemic in refugee communities, she notes, and is often increased by the stress and overcrowding of refugee camps and apartments shared by multiple families.
In the case of Syrians in Turkey, RI found that the camps provided no specialized GBV services in the camps, including access to post-rape care.
Humanitarian organizations cannot provide clinical care or services for GBV survivors because of the country’s restrictions on international aid. And hospitals along the border are overcrowded and often too expensive.
In Jordan, although there are several mechanisms in place to help local victims of GBV as well as the thousands of Iraqi refugees, the influx of Syrians has spread the resources thin.
There is only one camp so far, the Zaatari camp, which houses more than 30,000 refugees from Syria. RI found it failed to meet international humanitarian standards for safety for women and girls.
Non-camp women and girls are especially vulnerable, with no standardized system to provide information on where to go for services or how to access them.
And in northern Iraq, Syrian refugees get help from the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is already overwhelmed by the large numbers of people coming across the border. Shelters for GBV survivors were overcrowded even before the influx started.
The Domiz Camp, which houses more than 17,000 people, is also unsafe for women and girls, with sexual assaults common. There are no GBV services available.
Similarly, no humanitarian groups are providing GBV care for non-camp Syrian refugees in Iraq.
Refugees International has devised a list of urgent recommendations to help Syrian women.
The plan calls for the U.S. and other donors to increase funding for comprehensive GBV programming inside and outside of camps, including clinical care for rape survivors, psychosocial support, safe spaces and socioeconomic support.
It also implores the governments of Turkey, Jordan and Iraq to ensure that all refugees – particularly women and girls – can access services regardless of registration status or whether they reside inside or outside of camps.
With regard to the United Nations Refugee Organization (UNHCR), RI insists it must treat the protection of Syrian women and girls as life saving intervention, increase financial resources for GBV programming and assign senior GBV specialists to offices in Jordan and Iraq.
The UNHCR should also strengthen coordination of programs providing comprehensive GBV services and focus on building referral mechanisms inside and outside of camps in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, insists RI.
Finally, it says, the UNHCR and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization have to build Jordan’s second refugee camp in accordance with international humanitarian guidelines.
“The violence women and girls endure inside Syria is extremely grave, and related dangers are clearly present in host countries. It is of utmost importance that Syrian refugees can access GBV services, but the humanitarian response in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq is failing both camp and non-camp women and girls,” says Hersh.
“UNHCR must urgently scale up services, providing women and girls with the resources to heal.”
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