ATHENS — Ten days after a massive earthquake devastated Turkey and Syria in early February, a 13-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in the bathrooms of a shelter in northwestern Syria hosting hundreds of people left homeless by the disaster.
The perpetrator, himself displaced by the earthquake, attempted to enter the toilet twice while the girl was inside. On his third and fourth attempts, he was able to enter and assault her.
When she told her family what happened, the girl’s family relocated a few kilometers away to one of the few camps in northwestern Syria managed by a woman. The first days in the new camp, “whenever the girl had to go to the bathroom she was shaking in fear,” Khadija Shakurk, the camp’s director, said. “She is doing better now. No one bothers her.”
This incident was part of a documented increase in cases of gender-based violence—sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and domestic violence—against Syrian women and girls following the devastating 7.7-magnitude earthquake on February 6. In the chaotic circumstances following the disaster, which killed 53,227 people in Syria and Turkey and displaced more than 130,000 people in Syria, did protections for women and girls slip down the list of priorities in the relief response?
Due to widespread stigma around openly discussing sexual violence in Syria, many survivors are reluctant to speak openly—even anonymously—about their experiences. Still, a dozen testimonies provided by humanitarian workers and Syrian women working on the ground, alongside UN estimates, paint a troubling picture: women and girls left to fend for themselves in overcrowded, unsafe shelters and, at times, facing exploitation from those who claimed to be there to help them.
In the Idlib town of Armanaz, Shakurk does not need to read reports from international organizations to know this: She herself witnessed a spike of gender-based violence in and around the camp she runs, which grew from 35 to 180 families as people displaced by the earthquake moved in.
In one nearby camp, Shakurk said she met a woman who was “exploited” by a man delivering aid. He gave her extra supplies and made promises to marry her, then disappeared. Shakurk also noted an increase in reports of domestic violence in the weeks and months after the earthquake. In April alone, “three women were beaten to death by their husbands, with no accountability,” in the area near her camp.
Within her own camp, Shakurk witnessed one man try to force his sister to remarry after she was widowed in the earthquake left with two young children. “I told him that if he is under economic pressure, maybe I can help him find a job, but he said: ‘No, she has to marry,’” she said.
Child marriage increased, too, with four cases in Shakurk’s camp—three girls and a boy. “One 13-year-old girl was forced to get engaged” and told her friends she was considering suicide, Shakurk said.
Tip of the iceberg
In the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, thousands of displaced people in northwestern Syria sought refuge in overcrowded makeshift shelters. In many, bathrooms were shared between women and men, and lacked proper locks and lighting.
At one collective displacement shelter in Syria’s coastal Latakia province, a man threw hot water on his wife as a punishment for using the center’s bathroom “while men were standing outside,” said Racha Nasreddine, the director of ActionAid Arab Region. Her organization works with local partners that were present at the shelter where the attack took place.
In northwestern Syria, Nasreddine’s organization works with Space of Peace, a women-led organization that has operated a safe center for women in the Idlib town of Ariha since 2016. After the earthquake, they provided psychosocial first aid and cash assistance to survivors of gender-based violence. Bayan Rihawi, a project manager at Space of Peace, said the organization received 200 new cases “right after” the earthquake: 150 women and 50 children. Space of Peace noted “a clear increase” in violence against women by their husbands and other men, she said.
“Most of the time, harassment happened in places where there were gatherings, crowds, in shelters with shared bathrooms,” said Rana Bitar, the head of Space of Peace. In Armanaz, Shakurk witnessed how the lack of gender segregation in bathrooms led to “difficulties women faced just to enter the bathroom” and “problems between couples.”
Women Now, a Syrian NGO focusing on empowering women, also runs several centers for women in northwestern Syria and across the border in Turkey. Cansel Ballur, a protection officer at Women Now, said her organization reviewed reports from the gender-based violence cluster in northwestern Syria documenting 92 cases of gender-based violence in the first few months following the earthquake. Of these, 37.2 percent were related to physical assaults, 28.8 percent to psychological abuse and the rest to denial of resources.
Hiba Ezzideen, the co-founder of the Syrian feminist organization Equity and Empowerment, said their two women’s centers in Idlib received 25 cases in the first week after the earthquake. “There was no electricity. Girls and women had to walk for five-to-ten minutes in order to go to the bathroom, and the lack of light increased the likelihood of harassment,” she said.
Reports by United Nations agencies also shed light on increased violence against women in the wake of the disaster. UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, said 27 percent of those interviewed for assessments in Aleppo reported incidents of sexual harassment after the earthquake. Some 20 percent expressed a fear of harassment and a lack of privacy due to the lack of gender-segregated bathrooms in collective shelters.
Across northwestern Syria, 73 percent of women reported that violence at home and in the community either increased or remained the same after the earthquake, while in 42 of 120 surveyed districts women expressed “concerns for privacy and safety for shelter and sanitation facilities and the emerging issue of sexual violence,” UN Women reported. Syria Direct contacted representatives of the UN body, who declined to comment.
In neighboring Turkey, two percent of respondents faced sexual exploitation following the earthquake, according to UNFPA.
But humanitarian sources said official figures only represent a fraction of what happened on the ground. “Gender-based violence is underreported. Women and girls do not easily report this due to the social norms and what the community would say,” Nasreddine, from ActionAid, said.
“Documented cases are very low compared to the reality on the ground. In patriarchal societies, many women who suffered gender-based violence face obstacles to talking about it for fear of her husband or society,” Rihawi, from Space of Peace, added.
Nadia Akasha, a coordinator with the women-led Syrian organization Tastakel, visited camps in Idlib after the earthquake informing women of how to raise a complaint if they faced harassment, but she said few did.
Perpetrators and survivors
In the documented attacks against women after the earthquake, humanitarians pointed to husbands, other men displaced by the earthquake and those distributing relief items as perpetrators.
“In most cases in the northwest, the alleged perpetrator belonged to the survivor’s first circle, that is relatives, family caregiver, former or current partner,” said Cansel Bellur, Protection Officer of Women Now. Maha Okasha, the director of the Farik Sham network of women volunteers based in Idlib, also pointed to husbands as main perpetrators.
“In emergencies, there’s a vacuum of power and a lack of safety. With forced displacement, there is a decrease in security,” Rihawi, from Space of Peace, said. Pressure on men increases “and they empty that pressure on women,” she added.
To escape the increased “psychological pressure on the whole family,” some men “escaped reality by using drugs,” Okasha added. This helped fuel some violence of “husbands and sons towards the women,” she said.
In some cases, men distributing aid exploited women. “It happens a lot in the camps: ‘I give you this assistance and in exchange, you talk to me or come with me.’ They exploit her need for food,” Akasha said. Shakurk agreed, saying “many exploiters took advantage of women’s situation.”
“Sexual exploitation and abuse continues to take place as individuals and families struggle to meet essential needs, leaving them more at risk. In some cases, even those that have been entrusted with providing support, including non-humanitarian actors that have been at the forefront of the earthquake relief system, have been complicit in perpetrating the violence,” explained Fulvia Boniardi, the UNFPA’s Whole of Syria Gender-Based Violence Coordinator.
“The UN has zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and we have set up systems to hold humanitarians to a high level of accountability. However, there is still a need to improve the systems and structure to enable safe and timely reporting and investigation,” she added.
Boniardi noted an “increase in the threat of gender-based violence associated with living in temporary shelters not having a private segregated space and WASH facilities not having doors or locks.”
In its March 2023 report on the earthquake response in Syria, UNFPA noted that inadequate training of those distributing aid, combined with “direct engagement with women and girls” can raise the risk of gender-based violence in a humanitarian aid response.
All sources interviewed agreed that teenage girls, divorced women and widows were at higher risk of sexual violence or harassment after the earthquake. “Those more at risk are adolescent girls, divorced and widows, especially those living in camps, because they are exposed to shame and stigma and seem to lack that part of the male support and protection based in gender norms,” Boniardi said.
Other types of violence
Beyond beatings and sexual violence, Syrian women faced other types of structural violence, such as restrictions on their freedom of movement. “In one stadium, there was a camp where young men could come and go, but girls were forbidden to go out of the tents. The space was big enough that they could have divided it into one place for women and one for men,” said Mison Bitar, a Space of Peace project coordinator and head of the Women’s Protection Network in Ariha.
Limitations on their movement forced women “to settle for unsafe shelter” and made “disclosing GBV incidents” more difficult after the February earthquake, UNFPA reported.
Ezzideen, from Equity and Empowerment, who also monitors cyber violence as a trusted partner for Facebook, said that videos and photos of women posted on the social media site after the disaster—women being pulled from the rubble or speaking to reporters—were met with negative comments about their bodies and behaviors. Comments “criticized women for talking to the photographer without wearing a hijab, or for not wearing it even though she was under the rubble,” Ezzideen said.
Half of the sources interviewed in this report said they saw an increase of child marriage after the earthquake, while others said there was no such increase. Still, all agreed that risk factors for underage marriage—economic distress, destroyed schools and overcrowded shelters—increased due to the disaster.
“After seven years campaigning against early marriage, changing beliefs about the role of women, the earthquake felt like we were back to square one,” Bitar said.
Early marriage “remains one of the types of violence that families still use either to reduce the burden on the family” or to gain a “sense of protection, that ‘before my daughter faces rape or is sexually abused, it is better if she is in an official marriage,’” Boniardi explained.
One Syrian mother in Jenderes, the part of Syria worst hit by the earthquake, told Syria Direct through local Syrian NGO Violet that she was pressured by family members to marry off her young daughters after the disaster.
After she, her husband and two daughters moved in with her brother-in-law, “we faced insults and verbal abuse from my brother-in-law. He kept insisting that we marry our daughters to lighten the financial burden,” she said. “I need a safe space, so we can move away from the source of violence and avoid the pressure to marry my daughters.”
“Natural disasters or wars uncover the societal ethos, the traditions. Gender-based violence in Syria is something structural in society itself,” Ezzideen said. She pointed to religious discourse “used against women” to restrict their rights, alongside discriminatory laws and social traditions. In her own experience growing up in the Idlib countryside, “it was very normal to see physical violence against women in my village,” she said.
The root of violence against women is related to “the patriarchal system, and how men perceive themselves as having more power that can be exercised over women and young girls,” Nasreddine, from ActionAid, said. However, this is not unique to Syria. “In ActionAid, we worked in disasters in Nepal, Haiti and Bangladesh, and women always face more vulnerabilities than others because of the social norms,” she added.
Gender-based violence has “always existed in society,” and within the Syrian conflict the “militarization of the male” has worsened women’s situation, said Zeina Kanawati, Communications Manager at Women Now. “When weapons are in the hands of men, women are in a weak spot,” she added.
Twelve years of conflict have increased “pre-existing patterns of discrimination” reinforced by “societal and patriarchal cultural norms,” the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria wrote in a June report.
In Syria, “the legal framework is not yet able to protect women and girls who experience gender-based violence or sexual exploitation and abuses. Legal support for these women and girls is very limited and they often choose not to report the case due to lack of trust in the system. As a result, cases that are actually brought to court are close to zero,” Boniardi explained.
“If there is a [GBV related] complaint in front of the police station, authorities would side with the exploiter,” Shakurk said. The earthquake led to a “disruption of social and community structures that typically provide protection for girls,” Bellur, from Woman Now, explained. Women were displaced, lost caregivers and some lost income from jobs—like sewing or hairstyling—that were not essential in the catastrophic aftermath. And, “in a conservative environment dominated by patriarchal authorities, sometimes fathers don’t allow their daughters to come and get services we provide,” Bellur added.
Were relief efforts gender blind?
After the earthquake, dozens of local NGOs and organizations under the UN umbrella responded to women’s needs: In Turkey, 18,800 were reached with sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence support, including dignity and maternity kits. In Syria, 106,321 received services related to gender-based violence.
By any measure, responding to the earthquake in northwestern Syria was an enormous challenge. Cross-border aid deliveries were delayed for days after the disaster struck, and the disaster left aid organizations on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border in disarray and scrambling to respond.
Many protection officers were themselves affected by the disaster. “Most of the service providers were affected by the earthquake themselves. Women and girls’ safe spaces that support survivors were damaged or used as temporary shelters and morgues,” Boniardi explained.
But while the circumstances of the earthquake impacted the response as a whole, most advocates and humanitarian workers Syria Direct spoke to felt that specific protections for women and girls were sidelined.
“There were no clear tools to complain in shelters. If women faced violence or harassment there should have been clear ways to raise a complaint, with posters, a go-to contact,” said Maimouna al-Ammar, a advocacy manager at Hurras Network, the leading NGO in Syria in the field of child protection.
“We also have to do awareness sessions for women about their rights if they face any harassment. I remember a case of one woman who was beaten by her husband, and she said it’s normal,” Akasha said.
One clear shortcoming was the design of displacement shelters. “When thinking about the shelters, think about the cultural norms in the community, do some risk assessments in relation to women,” Nasreddine said.
Ezzideen and Kanawati argued that the lack of sanitary pads in some relief distributions after the earthquake signaled a lack of gender sensitivity. “Over the last 12 years we have suffered a lack of gender-responsive policies,” said Ezzideen. “We needed a feminist response that also responded to emotional needs. There was a need for psychological support and protection, for them to feel they are in a safe space where nobody would harass them,” Kanawati, from Women Now, added.
Gender-blindness could be due to a lack of female representation in the emergency response, from those distributing aid to those designing the policy. “In the emergency response teams, very few were women, we need to have more women,” said al-Ammar, from the Hurras Network.
After the earthquake, “many assessments did not include a lot of women as enumerators [those doing field interviews] and as responders, some had two percent of women, this means that your assessment is based on the needs of men,” Boniardi said. This explains the “shortcomings in understanding” how women were specifically impacted, she added.
Boniardi called for UN agencies to “invest in women-led groups that provide a lot of these community protection systems.”
“When women are in senior positions in organizations, they can participate in the planning, talk to donors and include the needs of women in the planning,” said Ezzideen, who urged the UN “to support more women-led and feminist-led organizations.”
Despite the odds, in the aftermath of the quake, many Syrian women played a key role in self-organizing. “We heard about support groups about women coming together in safe spaces, and in Latakia there was a community kitchen led by women to provide food for the displaced,” Nasreddine said.
Syrian women abroad gathered donations and sent them to women in Ariha, Bitar said. “There was a chance to take a bigger role, there was bigger freedom to participate,” she added.
And in Idlib, female university students collected donations to help the survivors of the quake, Ezzideen explained. Responding to the disaster, there was a level of “social mobility for women to go to the public space to participate, and fight the victimization narrative that is used against Syrian women,” she added.
This report was updated on 6/7/2023 to include additional quotes from Fulvia Boniardi.