UN agencies working in Syria are worried about high levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the Iraqi refugee community.
No comprehensive statistics on SGBV are available for Syria but local studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the rate of GBV among the refugees is much higher than among the Syrian population.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) identified nearly 500 Iraqi victims of SGBV between January and August 2008. Its update in August 2008 said: “At least 450 survivors of SGBV have been identified since January 2008, making an average of 13 per week.” The most common types of SGBV, said the report, included rape, forced prostitution, trafficking, forced marriage, domestic violence and sexual exploitation.
“We have noticed a problem with both physical and emotional abuse,” said Carole Laleve, a spokesperson for the UNHCR. “The number of cases coming to our attention has risen but that may be due to an increased willingness to seek help.”
Other agencies report similar findings. “Our anecdotal evidence suggests the rate of GBV in the Iraqi community is higher than in the Syrian one,” said Theodora Tsovili, a psychosocial specialist at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “Adolescents have particular psychosocial vulnerabilities and since the end of 2007 UNICEF has been running a programme of SGBV prevention among young women and men.”
Over 1.2 millions Iraqis fled their country following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the outbreak of sectarian violence in its aftermath.
Experts say they are not surprised by the higher and continued occurrence of violence, given the vulnerability of Iraqis in Syria.
“The Iraqis who fled to Syria are often suffering from post-traumatic disorders, most have a family member who was killed or tortured, often in front of them,” said Ilham Moussa, who works on the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA’s) US$200,000 humanitarian programme to support the Ministry of Health’s services.
“Injuries can also cause behaviour to change and make people more violent,” she added.
Other risk factors such as low income and changes in family roles, such as women becoming the main earners, are also present in the Iraqi community in Syria. These factors expose them to greater risk of SGBV than the Syrian population.
Suffering in silence
The real levels of SGBV are likely to be underestimated given the reluctance of women, who are usually the victims, to speak out. Doctors in Damascus and the northeastern city of Al-Hassakeh, where most Iraqi refugees live, have reported a number of cases of SGBV in Iraqi families.
“Often women are scared to say anything. They think they will be marginalised by their community and have no source of income,” said one doctor from the Dummar suburb of Damascus. “They think about their families and their children and decide that it is better to suffer in silence.”
The UNHCR says its outreach programme, in which a group of Iraqi women are trained to raise awareness by talking to their peers about SGBV, is helping Iraqi women to feel able to talk and seek help. “It is a very sensitive issue but now the women are much more open,” says Laleve. “There is a lot of pride at the start but as they trust the outreach workers and their desperation increases, they do start to talk.”
Other initiatives to tackle the SGBV are in progress and many more are being planned. UNFPA runs a humanitarian programme which has run six workshops for health professionals in the affected areas on how to deal with victims of violence - both Iraqi and Syrian as they use the same health system.
Health professionals who attended the workshops in Damascus at the end of 2008 were taught how to detect SGBV, which tests to offer victims, and the codes of confidentiality for dealing with them. They were also taught counselling techniques, including methods to teach women how to diffuse violent situations at home.
The Ministry of Health is finalising the first set of guidelines on dealing with victims of abuse. Other organisations such as the French development organisation, IECD, are developing SGBV programmes for the Iraqi population. Several shelters are available for referral of the most serious cases.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions