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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.