The women of Syria – forgotten by the world
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What do you do when your existence is blown to smithereens by an escalating and bloody civil war, and when you no longer can provide for or protect your children? You hastily marry off your daughters – even though they are only 13 years of age.
This survival strategy has begun to spread within the refugee camps where thousands of Syrians have fled to seek refuge from the armed conflict raging in their country. This is the conclusion of organisations such as the UN’s children’s organization, UNICEF, which works in the camps.
If they’re capable of raping a nine-year-old girl, they’re capable of anything
“Right now in Syria, they’re raping girls as young as that. If they’re capable of raping a nine-year-old girl, they’re capable of anything. So I won’t have peace of mind until I’ve seen my daughter married off to a good man who can protect her,” tells a father who has married off his 14-year-old daughter in a Jordanian refugee camp to the UM news agency IRIN.
Usually, the young girls are married off to cousins or men who they otherwise were promised to, but often they are also married off to strangers who are living in the camps. This is what a mother of two girls – 14 and 15 years of age – did. She tells IRIN:
“As a single mother, I’m unable to provide for them. I can’t give them food. I wanted to make sure that they would be okay, so I asked around to hear if the people knew of any decent Syrian men my daughters could marry.”
A resurgence in child marriages
In both Syrian and Jordanian law, child marriages are forbidden, so the marriages take place illegally and informally. The repercussions later on for the girls, for example in the event of a divorce or marital conflict, can be severe as the girls have no formal rights, which otherwise they would have had if they had a formal marriage contract.
Another issue is the issue of health, which for young girls can be put at serious risk if they become pregnant at an early age. For example, studies show that pregnancy and childbirth at a young age can cause debilitating gynaecological problems, making it difficult to control bowel movements and urination, because the body is not fully developed. Similarly, death of the mother during childbirth is also more prevalent among young girls as compared to young women.
The growing number of spontaneous and illegal child marriages is a direct consequence of the Syrian civil war – an issue that the Syrian politician Mouna Ghanem is trying to bring to the attention of the world.
The closest thing to a woman minister in Syria
Mouna Ghanem is the spokeswoman and vice-president of the Syrian movement Building the Syrian State, a cross-ideological opposition group that works towards toppling the regime and setting up a modern democratic state.
As well as being a doctor, Mouna Ghanem has worked with women’s and children’s rights for many years and is regional director of the UN organisation UNIFEM. Not least, she is the official representative of women in Syria: for three years she was head of the government-established Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, the only official organ in the country dealing with the conditions of women. As a result, she became the closest thing in Syria to a woman minister.
Mouna Ghanem was also invited to participate in dialogue with the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, when he visited Syria to mediate in the conflict in the spring of 2012. Through this position, she endeavoured to attract the international community’s attention to the consequences of the conflict for women and children.
“The conflict is an awful thing for everyone in Syria. But women are a particularly vulnerable part of the population, and their situation is in a constant state of deterioration. As a woman, it is right now difficult to even venture outside your own home. And even staying inside your home is no guarantee for your safety. Many women lose their lives as a result of being shot whilst inside their homes,” she explains.
Bring gender to the table
Mouna Ghanem has established a forum for women and democracy within Building the Syrian State. She is an indignant woman. As the eyes of the world focus on the women in Cairo and other towns and cities in North Africa and the Middle East that saw revolution during The Arab Spring, the international community’s attention towards the women of Syria is almost non-existent.
One area to start, she believes, is acknowledge and highlighting the gender perspectives of the war. Right now, the cost of the war for the many refugees is the fact that child marriages are making a comeback – among other things, because mothers find themselves no longer able to support their children themselves. But, according to Mouna Ghanem, the situation can be changed if aid organisations and the international community live up to their own promises.
“The UN has a target that 80% of the emergency aid provided during a humanitarian crisis should be targeted directly at women, because it is typically the woman’s responsibility to feed the whole family during a conflict situation. This is not happening in the Syrian conflict,” points out Mouna Ghanem.
Another gender aspect of the conflict are the many sexual assaults reported to be occurring in Syria, believes Mouna Ghanem.
“We don’t have the figures. Nor do we know whether or not the rapes are being carried out systematically. We don’t know who the perpetrators are; they could be rebels and government soldiers – or individuals who are taking advantage if the tremendous chaos. But there are many accounts of rapes – both of women and children, as well as of men”
At the end of 2011, officers in the Syrian army ordered their troops to rape teenage girls in the Syrian city of Homs; if the soldiers refused, they were shot. This is the account of a now-defected soldier given to the Beirut-based news site Ya Libnan.
“The majority of the soldiers were Alawite. They selected houses belonging to the opposition in Homs, gathered together all the young girls, and raped them. When they were finished, they asked soldiers outside to come in and rape the girls again. When all of them were done, the girls were, as a rule, shot. They wanted news of the rapes to become known in the area, but didn’t want the girls to survive so they could identify the men later,” tells the defected soldier.
The account can be found on the website Women Under Siege, which continually collected data and information about sexual assaults committed during the civil war.
No-one knows just how many rapes have been committed during the civil war, but the accounts of these are being heard more and more.
“We don’t have the figures. Nor do we know whether or not the rapes are being carried out systematically. We don’t know who the perpetrators are; they could be rebels and government soldiers – or individuals who are taking advantage if the tremendous chaos. But there are many accounts of rapes – both of women and children, as well as of men,” tells Mouna Ghanem.
A tough struggle facing faces the women
In Syria too, the women are standing side-by-side with the men in the revolution against the many years held by the regime. But the international response to the revolution from the international community has been different in character to that seen when Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians took to the streets – just as the brutality carried out by the ruling power in Syria has been on a very different scale.
Mouna Ghanem dreams of a future where democracy has been built – with the participation of the women. Nevertheless, as she herself says, she realises that the role of women in a future construction of a new state can be a challenge.
Having been head of the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs for ten years, Mouna Ghanem has a particularly keen insight into the women’s situation in Syria – as well as into working to ensure more rights for women.
Pleading for women’s rights initiatives, such as greater equality within the family or (more radically) gender quotas in the parliament, has proved an “up-hill struggle”, as she puts it. Often, she explains, this is because such proposals are interpreted and put forward by conservative powers who go against the Sharia.
The UN’s women’s convention, CEDAW, has been hotly debated in Syria over the years. The country ratified the convention in 2003 – but with a number of reservations dealing with the freedom of movement of women, equal rights for men and women, equal responsibilities within the family, equal divorce rights, as well as the minimum legal age for marriage. Several prominent conservative sheiks believed that the convention destroyed the family institution; others believed that it was a Western ploy with the sole aim of limiting the growth of Muslim populations across the world.
“We’re facing a far greater challenge than the women in the other countries that have just gone through revolutions. This is due to the fact that the oppression of both the general population and the women has been much greater in Syria. Egypt, for example, has had a decade of history with civil-society organisations, a women’s movement, and even gender quotas in the parliament”
Following pressure from the UN, the Syrian government in 2007 promised to withdraw its reservations regarding the CEDAW convention – but this is yet to happen.
In addition to this, Syrians are subject to Islamic law – Syria’s so-called Personal Status Act, Penal Code and Nationality Act. According to women’s organisations, this contains several highly discriminatory articles about, among other things, entering into and the dissolution of marriage, freedom of movement for women, and rape. For example, the law does not recognise rape within marriage, and a rapist can escape punishment if, following the incident, he marries his victim.
Nevertheless, women have achieved historic progress in Syria over the last few years. There are now female members of parliament, ministers and judges, and women are now taking higher education courses. In the country’s new constitution from February 2012 (which was President Assad’s answer to the revolution), anti-gender-discrimination legislation was included for the first time. Also to be included is an article about providing women with the opportunity to participate in social society. Yet, at the same time, the constitution contains an article stating that all state legislature is subject to the jurisdiction of Islamic law.
“We need everything. We need open doors to the outside world so that women politicians can experience how things are done in other parts of the world. We need professional technical assistance, money and know-how”
Because of this, Mouna Ghanem predicts a long and difficult struggle ahead of the women if the Syrian regime falls.
“We’re facing a far greater challenge than the women in the other countries that have just gone through revolutions. This is due to the fact that the oppression of both the general population and the women has been much greater in Syria. Egypt, for example, has had a decade of history with civil-society organisations, a women’s movement, and even gender quotas in the parliament,” she explains.
In Syria, organisations that have not been authorised by the government have been banned, resulting in a very weak women’s movement. And according to Mouna Ghanem, it is precisely for this reason that it is vital for the international community to sharpen their focus on the current situation – a situation which is leading to the destruction of the country.
“We need everything. We need open doors to the outside world so that women politicians can experience how things are done in other parts of the world. We need professional technical assistance, money and know-how,” she explains.
But what the women of Syria need most of all right now is the attention of the international community.
“If Syrian women stand any chance of gaining influence in the construction of a new, democratic society in the future, now’s the time to act. And by ‘now’ I really do mean ‘NOW’!” stresses Mouna Ghanem.