A new report has found that local men distributing food and other international aid in Syria have been withholding deliveries from women unless they agree to give sexual favours.
“Examples were given of women or girls marrying officials for a short period of time for ‘sexual services’ in order to receive meals; distributors asking for telephone numbers of women and girls; giving them lifts to their houses ‘to take something in return’ or obtaining distributions ‘in exchange for a visit to her home’ or ‘in exchange for services, such as spending a night with them,’” the new United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study found.
The abuse was widespread across governorates in Syria’s south and particularly affected vulnerable women and girls “without male protectors”, such as widows, divorcees and female IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), said the 2018 ‘Voices from Syria’ report, which examines gender based violence.
An aid worker who spoke to the BBC said that in their experience some women were refusing to go to aid distribution centres because “people would assume they had offered their bodies for the aid they brought home”.
The UN and partner charities told the BBC they had zero tolerance policies on exploitation and were not aware of any cases or complaints against partner organisations working on the ground.
However, similar warnings about abuse were raised in 2015, highlighting the difficulties humanitarian agencies face when working in places with no access for international staff, relying on local government and third party organisations.
A June 2015 investigation by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) questioned 190 women and girls from Dara’a and Quneitra and found 40 per cent had experienced sexual violence while trying to access aid.
The findings along with a focus group study conducted in a refugee camp in Jordan were presented to a UNFPA meeting in Amman that year, leading several international organisations who attended to reform their monitoring and complaints mechanisms in Syria.
However, the abuses identified in the new study raise questions about the effectiveness of the current checks and balances in place.
Danielle Spencer, a humanitarian adviser who conducted the Jordan study, told the BBC the aid sector wilfully ignores gender based violence to ensure it can still get aid to hard to reach parts of Syria.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls has been ignored, it’s been known about and ignored for seven years,” she said.
“Somewhere there has been a decision made that it is OK for women’s bodies to continue to be used, abused, violated in order for aid to be delivered for a larger group of people.”