By Zeina Awad
23 December 2017
No story has dominated the news the way that the refugee crisis has in recent years. While the trauma of war and displacement affects all refugees, one’s gender often shapes the ways in which violence and conflict are experienced. Throughout the course of my field reporting in Uganda, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and the Greek island of Lesbos, sexual violence emerged as a central and recurrent theme in the female refugee experience. Women and girls continue to be at risk of harassment and sexual violence long after they flee war and unstable environments. Moreover, the options that refugee families are resorting to in order to mitigate against these risks can exacerbate rather than alleviate the already unequal and abusive dynamics that female refugees are trapped in.
The incidence of sexual violence in the South Sudanese civil war is well documented. In August 2016, my team and I spent two weeks at Pagiriniya refugee camp in in northern Uganda close to the border with South Sudan. There, we met ‘Stella’ and ‘Mary,’ South Sudanese girls who were sixteen and seven years old respectively, who spoke to us on the condition that we hide their identities. Stella recounted how she had witnessed her own family members raped in South Sudan. She noted the high incidence of sexual assault when women were out collecting wood to cook for their families.
Mary was herself a rape survivor. She was assaulted inside her tent at the Ugandan refugee camp where we met her. Six years old at the time of the attack, Mary was sharing her tent with six other people. ‘When I was sleeping the boy came and took my clothes off, I realized that I was naked. He pulled me very tightly to him and I started to cry. My mother came and called the neighbours. They took me to the doctor,’ she told us.
Sexual violence is a difficult subject to discuss openly, and perhaps even more so within the context of the Middle East where sex and sexuality are considered to be intensely private matters (the coordinator of Doctors Without Borders in Lesbo noted that ‘proportionally we see many more cases reported coming from Sub Saharan African communities vs. the Middle East and Central Asia. This can be explained culturally, as the stigma is heavier in more conservative communities’). It is therefore impossible to quantify the extent and frequency of this kind of violence among Middle Eastern refugee communities. We know from documented experiences in Iraq and Syria – such as Yazidi women under Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and Syrian women at the hands of Syrian security forces in addition to Daesh – that sexual violence is an intrinsic part of how women in Iraq and Syria experience war.
This form of violence follows them into refugee and internal displacement camps. During a reporting trip at makeshift refugee settlement in the northern Lebanese district of Akkar in March 2016, our team met with sixteen Syrian girls, all of whom had been married off between the ages of 14 and 18. The prevalence of sexual harassment within that community was notable. The girls recounted how they or someone close to them had at some point been exposed to unwelcome advances or outright sexual violence since arriving in Lebanon. These experiences were cited as one of the main reasons why the girls were being forced to get married very young.
Child marriage has always existed in Syria, but its practice has increased significantly among the Syrian refugee population. The United Nations estimates that 13 percent of girls under 18 who were living inside Syria were married in 2011. By the end of 2014, that number rose to 31.7 percent among Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a notable proportion of girls marrying men significantly older than them. The girls we spoke to in Lebanon cited poverty and lack of physical security as the driving forces behind their own early marriages. Their families were either unable to feed them, or were worried about their daughters’ physical security. Marriage in this context was seen as a way to take girls away from prying eyes and therefore protect them from sexual and bodily harm.
We interviewed two former child brides who requested that we not use their real names. ‘Muna’ and ‘Ruqayya’ were both 14 when they were wedded to older Syrian men (although we spoke to girls who had been married off to Syrian and Lebanese men, families told us that some girls were also being married off to men of various Gulf nationalities). Muna said the abuse started as soon as she moved to her husband’s tent. ‘He kept on beating me and scolding me. He beat me and refused to divorce me and he wasn’t even working. So I left him. I used to dream about marriage, but at a suitable age, not when I am 13 or 14. This is unmerciful and forbidden, even by God,’ she said.
Ruqayya, on the other hand, was married off after one of her sisters had also married a man much older than her who subsequently abandoned when she became pregnant. Still, Ruqayya’s mother insisted she too must get married because her mother was struggling to support her. ‘We don’t have anyone to protect us, my mother was afraid for me because of the men in Lebanon. They throw rocks at us and at our houses, they verbally harass us outside our doors,’ Ruqayya explained.
While it was unclear if early marriages did help shield girls from sexual violence in public, what was clear was that becoming child brides only deepened cycles of abuse, exploitation, and trauma inside their homes. This in turn exacerbated the girls’ social inequality and exposed them to greater gender-based violence and discrimination. As Save The Children notes, ‘isolation of girls forced to marry makes it harder to access help, including child protection services. Sexual violence is inherent within child marriage.’
In conclusion, the incidence of harassment and sexual violence appear to be widespread among the refugee communities surveyed during the course of eighteen months of field reporting in the Middle East and Africa. The women and girls we interviewed perceived the threat of sexual violence to be especially acute when they were performing everyday activities necessary for their survival, such as collecting wood to cook, venturing out in search of jobs to support their families, and using common facilities after dark (female teenage Syrian refugees in Lebanon told our team they try to stay close to their tents or the tents of their relatives, and they avoid using the bathroom at night when the majority of camp residents are asleep).
In addition, the actions that refugees resort to in such situations – such as child marriages – risk exacerbating the cycle of inequality and powerlessness that refugee women are caught in. Sexual violence is shaping the refugee experience in the Middle East and Africa in such profound ways that it is imperative for scholars and journalists to place sexual violence at the centre of their work if the work is to be inclusive, accurate, and comprehensive.
Zeina Awad is Middle East Regional Advisor for MSF and a long time international correspondent and investigative journalist, including as an Al-Jazeera correspondent for the award-winning Fault Lines current affairs programme.