Syrian women ‘exploited for sex by aid delivery workers’
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