LONDON — Seven years of war have turned Syria into one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women, according to a global poll released on Tuesday, with experts sounding the alarm over rising child marriage, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation.
Syria, which ranked third behind India and Afghanistan, did not feature in a similar poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011, the year the conflict broke out.
“I’m very afraid of being one of the last educated women in my country,” said Maria Al Abdeh, executive director of Women Now For Development, which supports women’s centres in Syria.
“I’m witnessing a new generation who have no access to education, to economic opportunities, to law or to sexual health,” added Al Abdeh, who has lost colleagues in the war.
Half a million people have been killed in the conflict and half the population have fled their homes.
But bullets and barrel bombs are far from the only dangers.
“Sexual violence has been used with impunity,” said Al Abdeh. “There is a complete absence of any rule of law.”
Laila Alodaat, of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, said while international attention was focused on the “horrific” crimes committed by Islamic State, the biggest threat to women was from the Syrian regime.
“Although various actors in the conflict have used sexual violence, regime forces have used it as a weapon of war both to torture women and to terrorise wider populations,” said Alodaat who left Syria in 2011.
U.N. investigators said in March that the use of rape and other sexual violence during ground operations, house raids, at checkpoints and in detention constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Experts said women were also being sexually exploited by men delivering aid for local and international charities and higher numbers were abused at home as violence became more pervasive.
The poll ranked Syria second worst behind Afghanistan for the risks women faced from non-sexual violence and for access to healthcare, and joint third worst on sexual violence.
The poll asked 548 experts in women’s issues which five of the 193 United Nations member states were most dangerous for women and which was worst for healthcare, sexual and non-sexual abuse, economic resources, cultural practices, and trafficking.
“There’s definitely a normalisation of violence,” said Jennifer Miquel of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) who coordinates humanitarian efforts to tackle gender based violence in Syria.
“It’s not just about the frontline, it’s also about how violence has entered the home.”
Aid workers said rising poverty and fears of sexual violence were fuelling a rise in child marriage with reports of girls as young as 11 being married but no official data on numbers.
Struggling families were marrying off daughters early for financial reasons and hoping it would protect them.
Campaigners say early marriage limits girls’ education and increases the risks of domestic abuse and death in childbirth, particularly with limited access to healthcare. “We have witnessed women dying in childbirth or having Caesareans without anaesthetic because they don’t have access to hospital due to heavy bombing, or because the hospital has been destroyed,” Al Abdeh said.
But the UNFPA’s Miquel said Syrian women and girls should not be seen simply as victims.
With many men killed, injured or absent, experts estimate one third of households are now headed by women.
“We cannot just see women as complete victims in all this – they are certainly agents of change as well,” said Miquel.
“There are many empowered and dynamic young women who I believe will be contributing to the future of Syria.” —Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Claire Cozens