News / Middle East

    Exploit or Be Exploited: Survival Sex Among Syria's Refugee Women

    Twenty-year-old bride Hanan Al Hariri, a Syrian refugee, sits during her wedding at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria September 9, 2012.
    Twenty-year-old bride Hanan Al Hariri, a Syrian refugee, sits during her wedding at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria September 9, 2012.
    Cecily Hilleary
    Each day, hundreds of Syrian women straggle into Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region in search of security and a better life for themselves and their children. But because many of them have left their husbands behind in Syria, they are vulnerable to sexual violence and sexual exploitation. 

    Humanitarian groups are working to tackle the problem, but complain that a lack of money to fund the effort prevents them from doing more to help these women and girls.

    Asmaa Donahue, an advisor with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), describes the challenges refugee women face once they cross the border:

    “While the lack of security in camps makes them less safe for women, at least things like food and some supplies and services are available,” Donahue said. “A much larger proportion of refugees in this crisis are actually living outside camps in towns and villages, and don’t have access to many services at all.”

    “Many are struggling to make ends meet, barely able to scrape together the monthly rent for overcrowded apartments, or squatting in abandoned buildings or makeshift camps.  Many are not able to work legally and have no steady source of income,” Donahue said.

    As a result, women resort to risky survival strategies such as early or forced marriage or exchanging sex for food and a place to live.

    Advertisement in Damanhour, Egypt, newspaper: "We offer ladies with hijab, niqab, and Syrian ladies."Advertisement in Damanhour, Egypt, newspaper: "We offer ladies with hijab, niqab, and Syrian ladies."
    x
    Advertisement in Damanhour, Egypt, newspaper: "We offer ladies with hijab, niqab, and Syrian ladies."
    Advertisement in Damanhour, Egypt, newspaper: "We offer ladies with hijab, niqab, and Syrian ladies."

    Exploit—or be exploited

    The Zaatari refugee camp in northwestern Jordan has, by all reports, become a hub for quick marriages between Syrian women and men from other countries, particularly the Gulf area. Hamida Ghafour, a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star, recently spent time at the camp for a report on the subject and describes it as “a buyer’s market.”

    “If you are a groom and you are looking for a bride, preying on Syrian women is easier because they are in a position of not having any bargaining rights in getting a mahr, a sort of dowry,” she said.

     (Note:  In Islamic law, mahr, a requirement of marriage, is paid to the bride and is hers to spend or save as she wants. However, in some countries, it is paid to her family).

    “A lot of these women don’t know what else to do with their daughters, because they don’t have a tradition like you see elsewhere in the Arab world.  Girls don’t go out and live on their own, go to university or live a single life,” Ghafour said, “so they have to get married, settle down.”

    Some men go to Jordan with the best of intentions, either out of a sense of religious duty or in search of a good wife, but because there is no way to investigate the backgrounds of prospective grooms and their families, families cannot be certain that their daughters will be treated well.

    The phenomenon has created new business opportunities; Ghafour relates the story of “Um Majid,” a 28-year-old refugee from Homs who works as a marriage broker:

    It began when a local aid organization approached her to ask if she knew any “pretty girls,” Um Majid said. Most of her business is conducted through word of mouth.  Sometimes, she admits, she goes into the Zaatari camp posing as an aid worker to scout potential brides for her clients. She expresses shame, but says life is all about survival—you either exploit or be exploited.

    A Syrian woman at home with two of her children inside their apartment in the city of Mafraq, in Northern Jordan. Her husband has remained in Syria. Courtesy: UNICEF: Alexis MasciarelliA Syrian woman at home with two of her children inside their apartment in the city of Mafraq, in Northern Jordan. Her husband has remained in Syria. Courtesy: UNICEF: Alexis Masciarelli
    x
    A Syrian woman at home with two of her children inside their apartment in the city of Mafraq, in Northern Jordan. Her husband has remained in Syria. Courtesy: UNICEF: Alexis Masciarelli
    A Syrian woman at home with two of her children inside their apartment in the city of Mafraq, in Northern Jordan. Her husband has remained in Syria. Courtesy: UNICEF: Alexis Masciarelli

    Underage Marriages

    Dominique Hyde, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in Jordan, says that while no official statistics are available, she confirms that UNICEF has seen an increase in early marriages to Jordanian and Gulf men. While early marriage—at the ages of 15 or 16—are not unusual in Arab society, particularly in rural areas, some refugee girls are being married off as early as 12 or 13.

    “Child brides are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation, and child marriage often results in separation from family and friends and lack of freedom to participate in community activities, which can have major consequences on girls’ mental and physical well-being,” Hyde said.

    UNICEF is working with other U.N. partners in Jordan to explain to Syrian families the challenges of early marriages. 

    “Obviously,” Hyde said, “we can advocate with parents, but the reality is that when they have no more resources, they sometimes see marriage as the only solution for their daughters.”

    Marriage “Lite”

    Ostensibly designed as a way to get around the high price of marriage and avoid the sin of adultery, the misyar – or temporary—marriage, legal only in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, allows a man and woman to have sexual relations even though they don’t live in the same home.

    Newspaper accounts back up statements by aid workers that traditionally, some wealthy Gulf men vacation in poorer countries such as Jordan or Syria, where they enter into misyar contracts for the duration of their holiday, then abandon their ‘wives’ when they return home. 

    Refugee parents are approving such unions in the hopes that these temporary unions may someday lead to normal marriages. In reality, the endings are not so happy.
     
    “The girl goes off with the husband, and after a few weeks or a few months, the husband gets tired of his young bride and sends her back to her family," Ghafour told VOA. "And there is nothing anyone can do about this, because the marriage is not legally registered with the Jordanian government, and so the girls, the families, don’t have any legal recourse.” 

    Those who are abandoned by their misyar husbands return in disgrace and may be forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

    Prostitution

    Because of the special stigma attached to prostitution in the Middle East, it is difficult to get information about its prevalence in refugee communities.  Humanitarian workers appear reluctant to admit that it takes place under their care.  What can safely be said is that prostitution is a desperate measure taken by women who have no other means of support.

    The Toronto Star’s Ghafour encountered a young woman who admitted to working as a prostitute. “She was 15, actually, and she had gone through a misyar marriage.  Essentially, that’s prostitution, isn’t it?  She was too afraid to actually sit down and be interviewed, for natural reasons. She was worried for her life.”

    Ghafour says that local community-based organizations are very wary of helping women who work as prostitutes. “They don’t see it as a priority because there are so many negative connotations about it,” Ghafour said.

    A discussion group organized by UNICEF and Save the Children in a Child Friendly Space in the Zaatari camp, where teenage girls discuss issues such as education, protection, family. Courtesy: UNICEF/Alexis MasciarelliA discussion group organized by UNICEF and Save the Children in a Child Friendly Space in the Zaatari camp, where teenage girls discuss issues such as education, protection, family. Courtesy: UNICEF/Alexis Masciarelli
    x
    A discussion group organized by UNICEF and Save the Children in a Child Friendly Space in the Zaatari camp, where teenage girls discuss issues such as education, protection, family. Courtesy: UNICEF/Alexis Masciarelli
    A discussion group organized by UNICEF and Save the Children in a Child Friendly Space in the Zaatari camp, where teenage girls discuss issues such as education, protection, family. Courtesy: UNICEF/Alexis Masciarelli

    Insufficient Funds

    Aid groups say they are struggling to keep up with rapidly increasing demands for services. 

    “The international donors and donor governments have only met a quarter of their funding commitments to this humanitarian crisis, and that commitment is already based on refugee estimates that were lower than what we’re currently seeing,” IRC’s Donahue said. 

    According to UNICEF, nearly a quarter of a million of Syrian child refugees currently reside in Jordan. More than 2,000 refugees have streamed across the borders every day, and Hyde says she expects these numbers to more than double by July, and triple by December.

    “The humanitarian community was extremely generous to UNICEF Jordan in 2012,” Hyde said. “But this year only 19% or about $12 million of the $57 million appeal for Jordan has been confirmed.”

    Both groups say that unless they receive significant new funding, they will be forced to scale back on services drastically in the coming months.

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Sevir from: Hebei,China
    April 14, 2013 10:32 PM
    I think big countries like China and USA should take efforts to receive these refugees.Some of us can adopt those chirdren.

    by: johnny from: portland
    April 14, 2013 10:03 PM
    trading sex for economic and physical security has been around from the beginning of human history

    by: mehran from: india
    April 13, 2013 3:59 AM
    it is very hopeless when some people make job opportunity for themselves to insult other societies. some times we forget that we are human.
    In Response

    by: Jacob from: China
    April 14, 2013 9:36 AM
    People should be treated equally..

    by: Wei from: US
    April 12, 2013 7:05 PM
    "Exploit or be exploited" sounds sad and hopeless! I think we could do more than that!
    Share these terrible news to others, donate money or time to humanitarian groups, or just be kindly to everyone surrounding you! Don't take everything as granted, be grateful all the time, if you want, everyone could help to make our world become better!
    In Response

    by: nicole from: CN
    April 18, 2013 2:39 AM
    what you said was right .However ,I think people ,especially women and girls in this country ,should try to protect themselves and unit together .The more measures they will waiting for to take by others ,the more they hurt by men .The point I want to tell is that women should get stronger ....
    In Response

    by: Sevir from: China
    April 14, 2013 10:35 PM
    Wonderful! Everyone now not in the war area should cherish what they have now and not to be and fault-finder.Realize how wonderful the world is!

    by: Alexis from: Amman
    April 12, 2013 3:09 PM
    You can follow UNICEF's work in Jordan on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/UNICEFJordan and on Twitter @DominiqueHyde

    by: MUSTAFA from: PAKISTAN
    April 12, 2013 7:20 AM
    This is very sad situation. Who is responsible for this situation and these crimes against girls. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and all Main Sponsors be prepared yourself to give a reply in front of GOD COURT ON DAY OF JUDGEMENT. No body can scape him self against Accountablity in front of God. We can play so many dirty games in this world because we have power and wealth to do all these acts but there is no wealth and power after DEATH.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    April 13, 2013 1:28 PM
    i agree about that, but i think one of the solution from this big problem is how to stoping the war.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora