A startling report and BBC investigation into sexual violence in Syrian refugee camps has revealed a pattern of refugee women being forced to trade sexual services to local aid distributors in exchange for UN aid.
According to Danielle Spencer, a former aid worker who spoke with the BBC, the practice of trading sexual services for aid affected a “range of women” and had become “so endemic” that women were stigmatized for so much as going to aid distribution centers, where it was assumed that aid would be traded for sexual services.
Spencer said that she first learned of these exchanges taking place while working at a camp in southern Syria in 2014 and 2015 — and called for UN action to tackle gender-based violence.
“Women and girls need to be protected when they are trying to receive food, soap, and basic items to live,” she told the BBC.
“The last thing you need is a man, who you’re supposed to trust, and who you are supposed to receive aid from, then asking you to have sex with him and withholding that aid from you,” she added.
The report, “Voices from Syria 2018,” was released in November of 2017 by the United Nations Population Fund.
This year’s report noted that allegations of sexual harassment and assault “significantly outnumber[ed] the reports in last year’s assessments.”
“We heard about women being blackmailed were the distributor asked for favours from women in exchange for services — such as spending a night with them,” one woman said.
Other women and girls reportedly entered into temporary marriages with aid distributors in order to secure food and other supplies for their families, according to the report.
In response to the allegations, a network of charities including the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF), CARE International, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, along with UN agencies, announced a plan to roll out a “country-wide strategy” for protecting women and girls from sexual violence that includes a community-based system for filing harassment and assault claims and training for local distributors, Thomson Reuters reported Tuesday.
“Displacement, despair and destitution leave women and children particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including at the hands of those who are supposed to help them, though cases are often underreported,” a UNICEF spokesperson told Thomson Reuters.