By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna
Women's Feature Service
August 11, 2009
Hiba's fate was sealed from the moment her mother decided to leave her to her father in Baghdad, Iraq, at the tender age of seven. At 15, he forced her to marry a cousin, who abandoned her 48 hours later after raping her. Unwilling to take her back, Hiba's father persuaded her to go to her mother, who, by then, was living in neighbouring Syria. But, at the Iraqi-Syrian border he sold her off to a stranger instead.
Trapped in a country where she knew no one, Hiba had no choice but to put her trust in the man who had bought her. He, however, turned out to be a monster. Over the next two years he forced her into prostitution. He brought male clients to her and then took her to a Damascus club where she was taught to belly dance provocatively to attract customers. When she became pregnant, her captor abandoned her on the streets from where she was eventually rescued by local social workers and put into the Damascus Rehabilitation Centre for Minors.
It was here that Hiba felt safe for the first time in years. "When I first arrived, I was terrified at the thought of what was going to happen to me next," she says. "Soon, I was reassured by the presence of other girls like me. We became sisters and they replaced my family. I also realised I was not an isolated case. A lot of girls need help and assistance."
Protection officers of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, say that in many asylum countries, an increasing number of Iraqi women and girls are being forced into sex work against their will, or are turning to it in desperation for economic reasons. According to Aseer Al Madaien, UNHCR Protection Officer in Damascus, the refugee agency works hard to find women like Hiba who are being exploited. "With the support of Syrian institutions, we are constantly trying to increase our efforts in terms of prevention," he explains.
According to the Syrian government, there are around 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in the country, of whom more than 220,000 are registered with the UNHCR. Of these, more than 2,800 are women at risk. Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Acting Representative in Syria, believes that the diminishing financial resources of Iraqi refugees here have resulted in negative consequences such as homelessness, child labour, early marriage and survival sex. "Last year, over 700 survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) were identified by us," he reveals, adding, "The common forms of SGBV included rape, forced prostitution, trafficking, forced marriage, economic and sexual exploitation and domestic violence."
Citing figures, Leclerc says around 2, 40,000 Iraqis have so far registered with the UNHCR in Syria. Following reductions due to resettlement, returns and an ongoing verification exercise on the presence of registered refugees in the country, the current estimated population is 1, 80,000.
Unlike other countries in West Asia, Syria is the only Arab country that has not closed its borders with Iraq. In fact it continues to extend sympathetic support to refugees fleeing from death and persecution in that war-torn nation. But the high numbers of refugees has put a significant strain on Syria's economy as well as on its education and health infrastructure, which are open to all refugees. "The Iraqi refugees have all basic rights except for two - the right to vote and the right to work," says Kinda, a former registration clerk at the main Refugee Registration Centre situated on the outskirts of Damascus. "Unable to work legally, they can get exploited and the most vulnerable are the women and children who are forced into survival sex or child labour," she observes.
But the government has taken steps to protect these vulnerable groups. At the close of 2008, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and the International Organisation for Migration announced the establishment of the first shelter for victims of trafficking, like Hiba. The shelter aims to provide a safe haven for survivors of trafficking, with Iraqi women and their children being one of the target groups for assistance.
Apart from sexual exploitation, a growing number of distressed women have fled Iraq due to religious persecution. "Their stories are so sad and moving, they live from day to day in a state of fear," regrets Kinda. A case in point is Nina, a nurse, who fled Mosul (Iraq) in October last year after receiving threats. "The threats started months ago, with phone calls, letters and even messages on our door," recalls Nina, a Christian. When churches closed and friends and acquaintances began falling victim to the violence - including a friend who was shot dead in front of his son - she began considering her position. It was difficult because she had an invalid mother. But on receiving a fresh threat on October 10, 2008, Nina immediately took her mother to a village outside Mosul and then carried on across the border into Syria with her sister's young family. Nina has no phone and has not been able to reach her mother ever since she left her. She says she's frightened to go back to Iraq, but is very anxious about her mother and is now considering returning in order to try and bring her to Syria as well.
Unlike Nina, Mariam hung on longer in Mosul and left with her son only after a wheelchair-bound man was murdered. The truth suddenly dawned on her - that no one was safe. She says, "We were the hard core that never wanted to leave Iraq, despite the tense environment. My brother in Syria had been begging me to leave for a long time, but I never agreed. But as we felt the knife close to our throats, we had no choice but to flee." Her two daughters and their families took refuge in villages near Mosul. "They tell us that there is nowhere for them to go. They are on the streets," says a teary eyed Mariam, who is trying to arrange a visa to Syria for them.
Leclerc says that the UNHCR, in collaboration with other UN agencies, is working on a joint strategy to assist refugee women in detention. This is in addition to its support to several safe houses in Damascus, which provide counselling, vocational training and legal and medical services for women and children who have suffered any form of violence either in Iraq or Syria.
For Hiba, the future finally has a silver lining, as she has been repatriated to Canada with a foster family. She has recently given birth to a baby girl who she has significantly named "Zaman", which means "time". But there are others, like Mariam, who continue to live in fear and uncertainty.
Although tremendously grateful for the support of her adopted country, Mariam is devastated by the news from home. Says she, "I left my keys with Muslim neighbours but now I hear that the homes of friends were destroyed with dynamite soon after I left. I lived in my home for 35 years and had to pack in just 30 minutes."
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