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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently issued a report on the plight of Syrian refugee women. Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syria’s Refugee Women shows that more than 145,000 Syrian refugee families in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan – one in four of all households – are headed solely by women. According to UNHCR, the report uncovers that “Many [women] live under the threat of violence or exploitation, and their children face mounting trauma and distress.”

The information contained in the report is based on early 2014 interviews and the personal testimony of 135 women who head households, as well as UNHCR data from ProGres, which is the standardized system for refugee registration.

Among the serious issues covered in the report, one area of particular concern to CVT is the level and impact of sexual violence against many Syrian women. From the report:

  • “According to UNHCR ProGres report of March 2014, 347 out of 6,991 registered single heads of households reported experiencing sexual and gender-based violence related incidents either in Syria or during flight.”
  • “Several women explained that owing to the stigma associated with sexual and gender-based violence, they would be unlikely to speak out about incidents.”

Women affected by the conflict in Syria continue to be easy targets of sexual violence and harassment in the countries of asylum, in addition to the plight of leaving your own country and being dispossessed of everything.

UNHCR Deputy Representative in Cairo Elizabeth Tan

Additionally, the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict released the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in early July and reported that “The general fear of sexual violence by parties to the conflict continued to be stated as a reason for which Syrian families flee the country.”

Sexual violence is a common form of torture. In our own work, a large number of survivors we’ve seen at our St. Paul Healing Center have reported sexual torture. We also saw the devastating impact of sexual torture at our former project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our staff in Jordan is now hearing from women who describe in detail torture, imprisonment, rape, or other forms of sexual and gender based violence inside Syria. They say that rape is widely used against girls when soldiers break into the house, and they are often raped in front of their fathers and other family members.

Sexual torture is so widespread because it is an effective tool of suppression to terrorize and intimidate entire communities. As a military and political weapon, it subjugates and humiliates people of both genders.

What we know from our experience working with survivors of sexual torture is that rape will have a long-term impact on the individual, family, and community. Women may face difficulty returning home, especially after the birth of any children. The survivors may also face critical physical injuries and exposure to serious infections.

While we know the effects of sexual torture are long-lasting and difficult to resolve, we also know that healing is possible. With skilled and culturally appropriate care, survivors can and do recover. As a result, families reconnect and communities can get better after sexual assault.

If you would like to learn more about how we help heal and restore dignity to survivors of sexual torture, a previous issue of our Storycloth newsletter highlights this important work. You can read the article here.