Syr­ian women ‘ex­ploited for sex by aid de­liv­ery work­ers’

Arab News - - INTERNATIONAL - ANNA PUKAS

LON­DON: Men de­liv­er­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance for the UN and other in­ter­na­tional char­i­ties are trad­ing aid for sex­ual fa­vors from women in Syria.

Ac­cord­ing to an ex­plo­sive BBC re­port, warn­ings about sex­ual ex­ploita­tion were is­sued at least three years ago. One aid worker claimed the aid sec­tor has known about the prob­lem for much longer.

Danielle Spencer, a char­ity ad­viser, told the BBC: “Sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and abuse of women and girls has been ig­nored. It has been known about and ig­nored for seven years.

“The UN and the sys­tem as it cur­rently stands have cho­sen for women’s bod­ies to be sac­ri­ficed.”

Spencer said she first heard the al­le­ga­tions in March 2015 from a group of Syr­ian women liv­ing in a refugee camp in Jor­dan. They told her men from lo­cal coun­cils in ar­eas in­clud­ing Quneitra and Daraa had de­manded sex in ex­change for aid.

“They were with­hold­ing aid that had been de­liv­ered and then us­ing these women for sex,” Spencer told the BBC. “Some had ex­pe­ri­enced it them­selves, some were dis­traught.

“I re­mem­ber one woman cry­ing in the room and she was very up­set about what she had ex­pe­ri­enced. Women and girls need to be pro­tected when they are try­ing to re­ceive food and soap and ba­sic items to live. The last thing you need is a man who you’re sup­posed to trust and sup­posed to be re­ceiv­ing aid from then ask­ing you to have sex with him and with­hold­ing aid from you.”

The al­leged per­pe­tra­tors are said to be “third par­ties” em­ployed on the ground and lo­cal of­fi­cials. Their co­op­er­a­tion is needed to get aid into dan­ger­ous parts of Syria, mean­ing some aid agen­cies are pre­pared to turn a blind eye to cor­rup­tion and even crim­i­nal­ity.

De­spite warn­ings, the prac­tice is now so wide­spread in south­ern Syria that some women refuse to en­ter dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters out of fear that peo­ple will as­sume they are of­fer­ing sex in ex­change for aid pro­vi­sions.

“(The prob­lem) was so en­demic that they couldn’t ac­tu­ally go with­out be­ing stig­ma­tized,” said Spencer. “It was as­sumed that if you went to these dis­tri­bu­tions, you will have per­formed some kind of sex­ual act in re­turn for aid.”

“Voices from Syria 2018,” a study car­ried out by the UN Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNFPA) last year, found the prac­tice was com­mon in var­i­ous prov­inces of Syria.

Women or girls would marry of­fi­cials for a short time in or­der to re­ceive food in ex­change for “sex­ual ser­vices.” Aid dis­trib­u­tors would ask for tele­phone num­bers of women and girls and of­fer them lifts to their homes “to take some­thing in re­turn,” such as a visit to spend the night in ex­change for aid parcels.

Lone women, in­clud­ing wid­ows and dis­placed per­sons, are “par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual ex­ploita­tion,” said the UNFPA re­port.

In June 2015, a sur­vey of 190 women and girls by the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee in Daraa and Quneitra found around 40 per­cent claimed sex­ual vi­o­lence had taken place when ac­cess­ing ser­vices, hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

Both re­ports were pre­sented at a meet­ing of UN agen­cies and in­ter­na­tional char­i­ties hosted by the UNFPA in Am­man, Jor­dan, the fol­low­ing month. As a re­sult, some aid agen­cies tight­ened up their pro­ce­dures.

One char­ity, Care, stopped us­ing lo­cal coun­cils to dis­trib­ute aid and set up a com­plaints mech­a­nism, but was re­fused per­mis­sion to carry out stud­ies in refugee camps in Jor­dan.

The UNFPA said it had heard of pos­si­ble cases of ex­ploita­tion and abuse of women in south­ern Syria from Care, but stressed it does not work with lo­cal coun­cils as dis­tri­bu­tion part­ners. There were no al­le­ga­tions of abuse con­cern­ing the two NGOs it works within south­ern Syria.

The UN’s chil­dren’s char­ity UNICEF was one of the or­ga­ni­za­tions at the July 2015 meet­ing in the re­gion. It car­ried out a re­view of its lo­cal par­ties and con­trac­tors in south­ern Syria and in­tro­duced bet­ter train­ing. No ac­cu­sa­tions have come to light so far.

A spokesman for the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees said the al­le­ga­tions were known in 2015, but there was not enough in­for­ma­tion to iden­tify and take ac­tion against in­di­vid­u­als. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has now com­mis­sioned new re­search. in­clud­ing

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