WLUML Statement: Syrian refugee women, forced marriage, and sexual slavery

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) international solidarity network is deeply concerned about the growing trend of Syrian refugee women being sold into marriage as a ‘strategy’ of survival for desperate families; or as a way of escaping the destitution of life in refugee camps. Forced marriage is a form of sexual slavery which includes limitations to a woman’s autonomy, freedom of movement and power to decide matters relating to her sexual activity.

WLUML is aware there has been much information surrounding the Syria crisis disseminated by both regional and international media; and some reports have been highly skewed and misleading. However, evidence  collected by humanitarian agencies indicates that the crisis in Syria will only further intensify with more young Syrian women facing a similar fate.  According to a report  by the International Rescue Committee , [1]  desperate women trade sex for food, children are being forced to work in exploitative or dangerous jobs and families are selling girls into early marriage to reduce household numbers or pay rent.  Forced prostitution and forced marriage are forms of sexual violence which has become a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian crisis.

Because of the stigma and social norms around the “dishonor” that rape or other forms of sexual violence  brings to women and girls and their families, Syrian survivors rarely report rape.  Survivors fear retribution by their assailants, or being killed by “shamed” family members or in the case of girls, being married off at an early age “to safeguard their honor.” For survivors who manage to flee, there is a shortage of medical and counseling services to help them recover in the communities where they have settled and even there, challenges continue. Many women and girls face unsafe conditions in refugee camps as well as elevated levels of domestic violence.

More than 2.5 million Syrians have become displaced, either internally or externally, since the crisis began in 2011. The UNHCR estimates that 600,000 Syrians have sought refuge beyond Syria’s borders in neighbouring countries, however the actual figure is likely higher. Either crammed into overcrowded refugee camps or adrift in cities of neighbouring countries, these refugees have little hope to find work and sustain their families, let alone the space to recover from the unspeakable atrocities they no doubt witnessed at home.

Under desperate circumstances, and with little hope of actual help from an ‘international community’ seemingly set to argue amongst themselves over whether or not to arm factions within this proxy war than to do anything about the actual human crisis, Syrian refugees (the majority of whom are women and children) are increasingly turning to what the UNHCR representative in Jordan termed ‘survival sex’ – i.e. selling daughters into marriage.

Such marriages are reported to occur mostly between men from the Gulf Arab countries, who will pay a sizeable fee for Syrian wives. Astonishingly, such marriages are even being arranged by NGOs who purport to be working to aid Syrian refugees. As one Syrian woman in Jordan described:

"When I went for help at the NGO they asked to see my daughter. They said they would find a husband for her."

Aid agencies repeatedly stress that they do not have the resources to account for all the Syrian refugees in need of help, so in lieu of anything else women are paying the price. Having fled the destruction of their homeland , they find that ‘surviving’ the war was not the end of their ordeal. Now they face an unwanted, forced marriage in which they could also be subjected to countless other forms of violence – because to survive there are few other options.

WLUML calls on the international community particularly the United Nations, the donor countries and the international humanitarian agencies to take particular and urgent attention to addressing the growing gender-based violence crisis in Syrian women are facing. We call for:

1.  Emergency response funding that will adequately address the sexual violence that accompanies the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

2.  Establish adequate specialized medical care, emotional support, safe spaces and safety, and prevention information for women and girls.

3.   Establish programs that will focus on reducing risks and meeting minimum standards for preventing gender-based violence and abuse.  Shelter, water, sanitation and other services must address the safety needs of vulnerable women and girls in and outside refugee camps.

4. Establish programs that provide women and girls with relevant and needed material goods and economic support to reduce exploitative jobs including engaging in survival sex.  

5. Donor countries to meet their obligations and to increase the quality and quantity of services in accordance with their commitments under the various UN Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security. [2]Their programs on Syria should prioritise gender-based violence as a key protection concern.  Senior-level coordinators should be designated who will lead the mapping of existing services and local service providers in host countries to determine capacity and gaps.  Technical training most especially on gender-sensitive responses by community organizations and health care services providers should be given particular attention.


[2] There are five (5) UN Security Council Resolutions to address concerns  facing women , peace and security  in conflict and post-conflict situations:  These are: Resolution 1825 (2000)  Resolution  1820 (2008),  Resolution 1888 (2009), Resolution 1889 (2009), and Resolution 1960 (2010).