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Cycle of violence: Addiction fuels abuse of women in northern Syria

Drug use is on the rise in northwestern Syria, where addiction is fueling intimate partner and family violence against women with few resources to turn to.


13 September 2023

AFRIN — Women bear the brunt of drug-related violence in opposition-held northwestern Syria, where drug use is on the rise and narcotics are accessible at low prices, Sundus Fulfula, a psychologist and former case manager at the local humanitarian relief organization Shafak, told Syria Direct.

In territories held by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), a broad lack of security and the absence of support centers for the relatives of people with addiction leave women like Maram al-Agha (a pseudonym) “enduring the mood swings” of their relatives or partners, al-Agha said. 

Al-Agha has lived in Afrin since March 2018, when she was displaced from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. In Afrin, she suffered abuse at the hands of her brother, who was addicted to drugs. “He used to get really angry and hit me, sometimes for no reason at all. That’s why I said yes to the first man who asked to marry me,” she said. 

After a two-week engagement, al-Agha married in 2019. Shortly after, she began to notice her husband’s odd behavior. To her dismay, she discovered he was also using drugs, she told Syria Direct. She was trapped, unable to go back to living with her brother.

The Syrian Center for Drugs Control (SCDC)—an independent civil institution specializing in drug control and addiction treatment—noted a rise in drug use among young people in northwestern Syria in 2023 compared to 2021, Hasan Jneed, the center’s founder, told Syria Direct. SCDC estimates that around 25-30 percent of the area’s population may be involved in drug use, based on a targeted survey it conducted. Syria Direct could not verify the accuracy of this figure through official sources.

“According to 21 percent of those surveyed, access to drugs in the cities of al-Bab, Azaz and Afrin in the Aleppo countryside is very easy, while 37 percent said it is easy. Some 22 percent said it is a little difficult, six percent said it is difficult and 14 percent said it is very difficult,” Jneed said. Between the first of March 2023 and the end of July of the same year, 72 people from northwestern Syria reached out to SCDC and expressed a desire for addiction treatment.

These figures represent a grim social reality, particularly for women, as drug addiction “often correlates with a rise in violence against them, especially when the person using drugs is a partner, or one or more family members,” Jneed said. Drug-related violence against women takes various forms, “mainly physical and sexual assaults, and in some cases reaches the point of murder.”

Psychologist Fulfula pointed to “physical, psychological and emotional abuse, sexual exploitation, threats and blackmail” as forms of drug-related violence women face. 

Accordingly, as the use of drugs spreads, women’s “psychological well-being deteriorates, as they constantly live in fear and on edge,” Jneed said. “Some are even coerced into using or procuring narcotics,” he added, citing testimonies received by SCDC’s Women and Children Protection Unit. “There is a direct correlation between rates of drug use and the rates of violence and crime.”

In December 2022, the SNA-controlled city of al-Rai in the northern Aleppo countryside was shaken by the murder of seven members of a single family by a relative who had previously been arrested multiple times in connection with using drugs. 

Hell at home

After fleeing her abusive brother only to find herself in an abusive marriage in 2019, al-Agha became pregnant. She hoped her husband’s treatment would change, but the abuse continued, even after she gave birth. He became more violent “after losing his job with one of the opposition factions,” often pushing her to the point of “a nervous breakdown due to the intensity of the abuse,” she said. 

In one incident, she recalled her husband attempting to suffocate her and her child by “opening the gas canister after sealing up the house.” She also faced instances of “sadistic sexual violence, when I had to give in to his desires just to spare myself further harm, despite the pain I felt,” al-Agha said. 

In every instance of physical or sexual violence, al-Agha said her husband was under the influence of captagon—a type of amphetamine—or hashish. His sexual violence “put me in the hospital more than once with gynecological infections,” she said. 

While she was in the hospital, al-Agha’s husband took pictures of her and posted them on social media, asking for financial help. He cited “poverty and illness, while in reality he used the money he received to buy drugs,” she said. “E-begging” is a growing trend on social media, with people often asking for money to alleviate poverty or treat a health condition. Al-Agha said her husband also misused a $65 aid card from a humanitarian organization, selling the aid to buy captagon.

Despite the “hell” she has been through, al-Agha has not reported her husband’s abuse or drug use to local authorities in Afrin. She “doubts their role in addressing drug issues or taking action against those who use them.” She also fears her husband “would be released in a month or a few months, and take revenge.”

“If there were support services or safe havens for abused women, all the women in our neighborhood whose relatives are addicted would report abuse within their families,” al-Agha added, noting that cases like hers are prevalent in her neighborhood.

“There are no shelters for women who are victims of drug-related, domestic or sexual violence,” Fulfula confirmed. “We’ve been advocating for such shelters to be established, but for them to exist and function there needs to be a state, and the shelter needs to be under its protection.”

Jneed, of SCDC, said his organization has implemented “assistance programs for the families of drug users, particularly women and children, through our Women and Child Protection Unit.” They also provide training to women on “how to deal with relatives who are addicted.” The center also has “a hotline for reporting violence, which has been receiving an increasing number of calls” and “handles each case individually.”

‘We’d both go down’

Suad al-Ahmad (a pseudonym), displaced from the Aleppo countryside city of Haritan, lives in northern Idlib’s Atma camps, in territory controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Like Maram al-Agha, her husband has a drug addiction, and beating her and her children has become “a normal, daily act,” she told Syria Direct. Even her two-year-old daughter “has not escaped the violence.”

Many nights, al-Ahmad lays awake, “fearing my husband could harm us,” she said. “He hurts himself with sharp objects when he can’t find pills, and I worry he could hurt us too.”

Her tent is nearly bare. Her husband sold most of the furniture to buy narcotics, leaving them with only the rug to sit and sleep on. He also sells baskets of relief goods, worth $75 each, provided by humanitarian organizations to camp residents.

She, too, is afraid to report her husband. He has repeatedly used her to receive pills from drug dealers in Afrin, taking advantage of the fact that “women undergo less rigorous searches at checkpoints than men,” al-Ahmad said. After that, he threatened her, saying “if I reported him, we’d both go down,” she recalled. 

Al-Ahmad helped her husband “because if I refused the first time, I would have been beaten and tortured,” she said. Later, he threatened her with the police if she did not keep helping him, reminding her she was an accomplice. 

Ahlam al-Naes (a pseudonym) feels she also has no choice but to secure pills for her 22-year-old son. She does it “to protect his wife and sister from harm,” she told Syria Direct, as he “tried to attack them with a knife more than once when he didn’t have them.”

Al-Naes and her family have gone through hard times since her husband and one of her sons was killed during regime bombings of Aleppo city in 2014. After that, she noticed “my other son going astray, and using drugs since he was 17 years old,” she said. 

When she found out he was using drugs, al-Naes had her son marry before he turned 18 “to get him away from the drugs.” But as time went by, his wife, mother and sisters all fell victim to abuse. 

Al-Naes takes occasional jobs cleaning houses, and earns around $50 a month. It is barely enough to cover the family’s expenses, including the cost of “the pills, because I’m afraid of the consequences if they’re cut off.” When they are not available, her son’ volatility and violence towards his family members increases. 

Recently, her son’s wife filed a complaint against him, and he was arrested. He faces a six-month prison term, al-Naes said. Helping him get drugs was a mistake, she said. Still, she believes her son is a victim of the war in Syria. “He lost his father—he wasn’t here to look after him.” 

Caught in a cycle of violence

Economic and living conditions are hard in northwestern Syria, home to approximately six million people—including around 2.9 million displaced people. The reality of women and children, who make up 80 percent of the displaced, is particularly dire due to the risk of gender-based violence. 

The United Nations estimates that around 7.3 million people in Syria, the overwhelming majority of whom are women and girls, need gender-based violence services, according to a joint statement issued in December 2022. They also face restrictions on their movement and “limited access to employment opportunities, protection services, healthcare and other critical assistance.”

Fulfula noted that “instances of violence tend to increase during times of war and emergency, when women are often socially compelled to endure violence from a partner or caregiver, regardless of its severity.” Despite “numerous protection programs for women in northern Syria, there has been a notable increase in cases of drug-related violence,” she added.

She attributed a rise in drug-related violence against women to the fact that “most drug-users are male,” a phenomenon that is not limited to the regions of northwestern Syria, but rather “extends across the country.” If the drug crisis escalates to a point where “women are coerced to use drugs, it could lead to them accepting violence and engaging in prostitution and criminal activities,” she said.

There are no precise statistics on the number of women who face drug-related violence in northern Syria. However, the director of SCDC’s Women and Child Protection Unit told Syria Direct that it handled 12 cases of women facing marital and domestic violence due to drug abuse over the last seven months, and documented four divorces resulting from the same issue.

A year and a half since it was established, the Center for Women and Children’s Rights affiliated with the civil police in the northern Aleppo countryside has received 200 reports of violence against women and children, including reports of drug-related violence, according to a security source who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

With drugs spreading across northwestern Syria, this past June the SNA launched a crackdown overseen by the local military police. In August, the military police announced the arrest of 15 drug dealers in the northern Aleppo countryside.

Yet women remain in the eye of the storm, searching for the safety to be able to speak out about the violence they face. For now, al-Agha remains silent, concealing the violence she faced from her brother and continues to face from her husband. Her and her daughter’s lives are still in danger. 

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This report was produced as part of Syria Direct’s MIRAS Training Program, in collaboration with Violet Organization, for early-career journalists in northern Syria. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nouhaila Aguergour.

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