Editor’s Note: This two-part series explores the situation of Syrian women refugees in Lebanon. Part I illuminates the political background that led to the refugee crisis and its particular consequences for women. Part II shows how refugees and the organizations that assist them are playing a leading role in combating all forms of violence against women and creating programs that will give them a future.
Pity the Nations: Women Refugees in Lebanon
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful. … Pity the nation whose statesman is like a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.
In 1923, Lebanese poet, philosopher and artist Khalil Gibran wrote “Pity the Nation,” a poem that is particularly meaningful during our current global crises of leaders, nations and nationalism. Renowned journalist Robert Fisk used Gibran’s title, “Pity the Nation,” for his trenchant history of the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, a war in which Lebanon’s neighboring country of Syria played a leading role.
Lebanon is never far from Syria in history and politics. Today, as foxlike statesmen juggle Lebanon and Syria in their regional maneuvers, Gibran’s words are sobering. The unbreakable web trussing these two countries together, while Syria experiences the culmination of its own civil war, could be lamented as “Pity the Nations.”
In October, I was part of a nongovernmental organization visit to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. We were a team of three from the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Italy’s Association IROKO and the American Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. Our goals were to document not only the situation of women in the camps but also to spotlight the significant role that women are playing as political actors, combating all forms of violence against women and creating programs that give them a future.
We traveled from Beirut to a town roughly three miles from the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley. More than 365,000 of Syria’s registered refugees live in this poorest region of Lebanon. We walked through labyrinthine lanes of makeshift shelters housing hundreds of refugees, euphemistically called a camp. In actuality, this “camp” was nothing more than a patchwork of improvised structures that looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that never quite fit together.
There are several portable toilets throughout the camp, but the refugees told us they don’t use them because they are filthy. Instead, they create pits outside their tents to dispose of human waste. Those in tents on the edge of the camp dump their waste into shallow gullies where children often play. Many refugees have lived this way since 2011.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, 1.5 million refugees have fled to Lebanon. Earlier, over 450,000 Palestinian refugees also had sought refuge in the country. In contrast to Syria, Lebanon is a small country, with a population of 6 million. This means that refugees make up one-third of the Lebanese population, the highest concentration of refugees per capita of any country in the world.
It’s important to understand the rabbit hole into which Syrian refugees have fallen in Lebanon. Although the country has not closed its borders, it does not recognize the fleeing Syrians as refugees. There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon, so these people must fend for themselves. Refugees cannot obtain residency or work permits and are often forced to rent land from extortionate landlords. The government provides no tents, no food or water, and no sanitary facilities. Syrian children cannot be educated in Lebanese public schools.
Women and girls make up almost 53 percent of the refugees. Before the civil war, Syria had one of the highest rates of educated women in the Middle East. UNESCO estimates that since the war, Syrian girls are almost 2.5 times more likely than boys to be kept from attending school in conflict zones.
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When agencies and advocates talk about the political economy of terrorism, they are referring to ISIS oil revenues or trade in antiquities. They seldom talk about the trafficking in women—for example, when ISIS captured hundreds of mostly women and children and demanded an $18 million ransom. Since the war, women and girls have become a “form of currency.” Women are used as the spoils of war in all types of transactions and trades, kidnapped for ransom, sold into marriage and traded for weapons and goods.
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, nearly 14,000 women and girls have been arbitrarily imprisoned in Syria, where many have been raped and tortured. A 2016 nongovernmental organization report found the Syrian government guilty of arresting women for purposes of trading them for weapons. Even Syrian rebel groups have captured women in an attempt to use them as bargaining chips for their fighters held as hostages.
In Lebanon, landlords have demanded a woman or girl from families that can’t pay the rent. Desperate families have traded women into marriage for various goods and services. Eman Obeid, a refugee now working for the Danish Refugee Council, said, “It’s like the price of a year rental is a young female.”
Syrian women crossing into Lebanon, especially single women, have reported violence and sexual assault at the border and after they enter Lebanon. Hada, one of the refugees we interviewed, shared her own brutal experience: Married in Syria at age 13, she left the country when a sniper injured her 5-year-old son in 2012. At the border crossing, one of the guards heard the boy say, “[Syrian President] Bashar [Assad] is a jackass.” They became violent with her and interrogated her for 12 hours.
When she arrived in Lebanon, she met a group of women who brought her to a large house with many other women. Hada noticed a steady stream of men entering and leaving at all hours, and when she asked the woman running the house what was going on, she said, “You give them favors, they give you favors.”
In the early hours of the morning, Hada fled the house with her son. After walking for many hours, she found a construction site shack where they stayed at night. During the day, she begged on the streets and in the back of restaurants for food. Not wanting to tell us what subsequently happened to her, she gave permission to her nongovernmental organization caseworker to divulge that she had been gang-raped. As author Janine di Giovanni has written, “It’s so hard to remember what you wish you could forget.”
Later, Hada met her second husband, whom she married “mostly for protection” but who battered her. The caseworker added that, in addition to the rape she experienced during her journey into Lebanon, Hada was abused by her father as a child and by her first husband in Syria. She now has serious health problems. “It’s amazing that she’s still alive,” the caseworker said. “She and her young son, who witnessed his mother’s gang-rape, are receiving assistance.”
In 2013, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said that reports of mass rape in Syria were “the primary reason … families fled the country.” In Syria, rape has become weaponized, with most reported crimes committed by pro-government forces during regime incursions into opposition areas, interrogations in prisons and at checkpoints.
Many women raped in detention were either political activists against the Assad regime, relatives of activists, residents of opposition strongholds or resistance fighters. In some detention centers, guards distributed contraceptive pills or abortifacients to women. The availability and distribution of these pills attest to planned medical intervention and the fact that widespread rapes were part of a strategic state policy of repression.
Rape is always a primary tactic in war. Some scholars note that rape in war is more frequently perpetrated on women than on men. And the consequences of what men and women suffer in detention are different. Male detainees are often hailed as heroes for what they have endured in combat and prison. But women detainees are not honored for being raped and often will conceal what has happened to them. They are dishonored if they speak about it and are stigmatized as damaged goods.
Nearly every refugee and organization official we spoke with mentioned the growing incidence of early marriage among Syrian refugee girls. The IRC staff member we interviewed said that since the Syrian conflict, there has been a 23 percent increase in early marriages of girls, especially in the Bekaa Valley. She also noted the “huge gap” in marital ages between the young girls and older men.
Early marriage was a traditional practice in rural Syria even before the war. Many of the refugee women we interviewed had been married in adolescence, some as young as 13. In the camps, where there is little security for those living in tented areas or abandoned houses, many fathers consider early marriage a safeguard for a girl, as well as income for the family.
Child marriage can easily obscure what effectively amounts to coercion, because girls cannot give informed consent to a relationship that is essentially controlled by her father or other relatives, and later by a husband. The girl cannot leave or end the marriage, potentially leading to a lifetime of legal sexual exploitation and/or domestic servitude.
She will have little control over her reproductive life and health, especially if she has children at an early age.
Early marriage increases the confinement of girls in the home, particularly where the cultural expectation is that boys venture out and can take care of themselves, but girls need to be protected. As a result, girls are more likely to be kept inside and become adults who seldom leave their dwellings, and then only with a male family member. The IRC staff member remarked that she has seen entire villages of homes with carpeted windows through which no daylight shines, allegedly so no potential predator will see the women and girls and kidnap them.
Sex traffickers are exploiting women refugees for prostitution. In 2016, Lebanese authorities broke up a sex trafficking ring of 75 women north of Beirut. Desperate to leave Syria, the women involved had been promised jobs in Lebanese restaurants and hotels. As soon as they crossed the border, all their possessions were taken, and they were locked up in two hotels and held prisoner.
Workers from KAFA (meaning “Enough”), one of the leading nongovernmental organizations in Lebanon providing services to victims of violence against women, told us that the traffickers tortured, raped and forced the women to have sex with 10 to 20 men per day. Lebanese officials reported that the traffickers garnered $1 million per month. Four women were able to escape and notify Lebanese authorities, who then arrested eight of the guards. After the arrests, the Lebanese Health Ministry charged a doctor who had allegedly performed 200 abortions on women in the trafficking ring.
In the Bekaa Valley, we interviewed a Syrian woman I’ll call Rima. Rima had been trafficked into a forced marriage by a man who had offered to help carry her handicapped sister to Lebanon. She discovered he was a pimp when he compelled her to have sex with men he brought to their quarters. Later, she found out he had pimped other women. When we asked if there were women in the camps whose husbands were selling wives or daughters for sexual exploitation, she told us there was “much talk about women who were trying to obtain divorces because husbands had sold them or threatened to sell them.”
Yet media and international organizations continue to describe accounts of trafficking and prostitution as “sex work.” The term is increasingly being slipped into reports that quite clearly document the most horrific aspects of women’s sexual exploitation. There is a disconnect between the reality and the language used to describe sex trafficking and prostitution.
In a report funded by the Freedom Foundation titled “Struggling to Survive: Slavery and Exploitation of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” the author recommends improving anti-trafficking legislation by amending the penal code so that victims of sex trafficking cannot be prosecuted for engaging in “sex work.” Of course, no victim should be prosecuted for her exploitation. However, what we increasingly see in many nongovernmental and U.N. reports on sex trafficking is the term “sex work” applied to prostitution, and the disturbing trend to separate sex trafficking and prostitution in order to institutionalize the distinction that trafficking is forced and prostitution is voluntary.
The continued normalization of prostitution has been stamped with the U.N. imprimatur in the “UNAIDS Terminology Guidelines,” which advises authors to use “sex work” and “sex worker” instead of “prostitution” and “prostituted woman,” allegedly because they are nonjudgmental terms. But “sex work” is filled with judgments about how prostitution should be viewed and legislated as a “sexual service.” Surely the term “sex worker” doesn’t dignify Syrian women refugees, or any woman who has been prostituted. It mainly dignifies the pimps and buyers and renders the harm to prostituted women invisible.
Being a Refugee Doesn’t Stop Political Engagement
In a refugee camp in Lebanon, the nongovernmental organization group I was traveling with met a young refugee who radiated confidence and agreed to talk with us. Fatima, married at 17, with one child and another on the way, had managed to finish high school. Every day, she travels to the university where she is in her fourth year of studying philosophy. She was very proud to show us her box of books and written papers, which was buried under a basket of clothes in the family tent. Fatima’s mother taught her 10 children, particularly her girls, that “education is the biggest sword” for success in life. Fatima prides herself on being “a strong woman,” and “if anyone harasses me, I know how to handle [myself.” She is one of the teachers at the Syrian Support Society’s schools in the Bekaa Valley, established for Syrian refugee children.
In a country where refugee children struggle to attend school, the society supports an extensive project called Relief and Educational Assistance (REA) that educates children ages 5 to 14 from the camps. The scope of the program is impressive: It was begun by two dedicated Lebanese women who are now the program’s co-managers and is staffed by a committed group of teachers and volunteers. REA is a full-service program that delivers quality education in a setting free from religious and political ideologies. The program employs 200 refugee teachers, many of whom are educated Syrian women who generally cannot find work in Lebanon. The program also removes the environmental barriers, such as transportation to and from school, that stand in the way of refugee children attending school.
REA’s goals are practical and locally based: Provide each child with one nutritional meal per day; recruit local Syrian teachers, which helps support families and the local economy; and transport children to and from schools, thus increasing the number of girls who can safely attend. Students can participate in extracurricular activities including arts and crafts, sports, music and drama. The schools offer counseling services for students who have been traumatized in the refugee process. REA also provides ancillary jobs to drivers, assistants, management and maintenance staff.
Altogether, the program engages the refugee community—especially women—creates jobs and helps reduce poverty. REA has created five schools that provide education to 2,800 children and relief to refugee families in need of clothing, bedding and food. But while impressive, these programs reach only a small percentage of the children.
KAFA is one of the premier women’s organizations in Lebanon. It is a “feminist, secular, Lebanese non-governmental civil society organization seeking to create a society that is free of social, economic and legal patriarchal structures that discriminate against women.” KAFA aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and seeks to promote and institutionalize women’s equality through a combination of different approaches: advocacy and law reform; influencing public opinion and practices; conducting research and training; empowering women and children victims of violence; and providing them with social, legal and psychological support.
During our trip to Lebanon, we visited a remarkable day center set up by KAFA in the Bekaa Valley. The organization has helped hundreds of Syrian refugees through holistic case management that includes psychosocial aid, literacy training, legal aid and mobile teams that go into the camps to identify women and children at risk for violence. The center also assists Lebanese women who are victims of male violence.
We also met with KAFA’s staff in Beirut, where we discussed their work on trafficking and prostitution. KAFA conducted a research study in Lebanon and shared its findings in a report, “Exploring the Demand for Prostitution.” It’s a groundbreaking analysis of what Lebanese men say about their motives, perceptions and practices of purchasing women for the sex of prostitution. Asked how many times they had used women in prostitution over the course of their lives, the men cited figures ranging from four to 300, with 42 percent stating they had used more than 50 women in their lifetime.
That same day, we met with organizers of the Syrian League for Citizenship. We spoke with two Syrian women activists, refugees themselves, who were forced to leave their country because they faced imprisonment for their opposition activities. They told us that the number of young Syrian women activists coming into Lebanon is increasing.
In a world where the term “global citizenship” is an oxymoron, and in a part of the world where civic responsibility has been ravaged by long-term civil wars, the league is promoting principles of citizenship. From exile in Lebanon and in the midst of the continuing carnage in Syria, a cadre of activists and researchers are creating an ethical blueprint for a better society to arise not only out of Syria’s ashes, but also from an informed citizenship based on the cooperation of those willing to form a secular community not centered on religious, sectarian or tribal relationships.
The mandate of the Syrian League for Citizenship is to raise awareness and build the capacity of young civil-society activists. League members believe that more than ever, after the evisceration of the Syrian state and collapse of the social fabric, it is important to establish a “transitional justice” that will help build a renewed Syria and a homeland for all its citizens.
The league publishes a citizenship handbook in Arabic and English, and also organizes workshops, during which members use techniques such as role-playing to apply concepts of violation, consent, women’s rights and equality. One workshop illustrates their attempt to challenge the early marriage paradigm that dominates girls’ lives in traditional families. League members recognize that in addition to the patriarchal pressure that promotes early marriage, girls themselves may view marriage as a way out of their problems. Thus, the league works with mothers and daughters to challenge myths that early marriage “protects” young girls.
Girls might consider early marriage as a better option than a refugee tent, where privacy and security are nonexistent. A workshop facilitator asks a daughter to speak about her dreams: perhaps an education, a place of her own, a husband and eventually children.
The mothers, most whom have been married very early, are asked to speak about their experiences of marriage. Truths come out in these sessions. Many mothers echo the sentiments of one woman who said, “I lost my childhood. I had to leave school. Babies came quickly without my knowing anything about the sex act. I had a lot of responsibility and couldn’t continue to see my friends. I had more problems than I ever had before, including a dominating husband.”
Mothers and daughters are asked to exchange roles and debate what the other has reported. The role-playing helps de-romanticize rosy expectations girls may have of early marriage when they hear themselves speaking as their mothers. And the mothers, possibly for the first time, are able to speak honestly about their lives and how things might have been different.
We asked everyone we interviewed if they would return to Syria now that the war was winding down. Many refugees would like to return and many love their country, but the physical infrastructure has been devastated. Most buildings have been destroyed, there are few villages to return to and most roads are closed. Prices have skyrocketed for everything, given the influx of war profiteers.
Women told us they could not return without justice. Justice, to them, includes knowing what happened to relatives and friends who were detained or disappeared. Justice means not returning to a country that will conscript sons for the army. One refugee told us, “I cannot come back. My son is 16. They will take him to the army.” Justice includes accountability for the crimes Syrian President Bashar Assad has perpetrated against his people, although there is little chance of this in the short term. And justice includes security—the knowledge that in returning, they will be safe.
Women insisted, too, that justice includes the complete removal of ISIS from the country. ISIS is still present in parts of Syria. After being defeated in Raqqa, mainly by Kurdish-led forces, ISIS fighters were allowed to leave the city in a convoy of trucks, which conveyed them and their families across Syria. Many of them have regrouped in the Syrian city of Idlib, and others are spread throughout the country. Numerous ISIS combatants have escaped to other countries, where they have sworn to wreak havoc.
In the early months of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Assad initially imprisoned many Islamist fighters, only to unexpectedly free them several months later. Their release was viewed as a politically calculated strategy of the regime to destabilize opposition forces by redirecting their resistance, and complicate, confuse and subdue the citizenry. Samar Yazbek, in her extraordinary book “The Crossing,” quotes a Syrian activist who said, “It’s an impossible choice: either we focus on fighting Assad’s army or we fight the extremist battalions and the mercenaries who’ve muscled in on the revolution and corrupted it. We’re worn out from the sky with the planes, the barrel bombs and the missiles, and from the ground by these Islamist battalions.”
The fates of both Syria and Lebanon are in the hands of proxies. Syrian refugee activists told us that Russian forces are everywhere in Syria, and Russia supports Assad. A large part of the population still living in Syria also supports Assad.
The Syrians know they are not welcome in Lebanon. Refugees told us that they get blamed for everything there, even the traffic. The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church, speaking from the pulpit in July, told his congregation that Syrian refugees are “snatching daily bread from our mouths and throwing them [Lebanese] into a state of deprivation.”
Tensions in Lebanon are sure to increase with the recent news that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Nariri was held in Saudi Arabia and just allowed to return to his country on Nov. 21. Reports suggest the Saudis pressured Hariri to criticize Iran for sowing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon, and to rebuke Hezbollah for creating a “state within a state.” The fact that Hariri delivered his message in Saudi Arabia signaled that the Saudis have now plunged into Lebanon’s internal affairs and its fragile coalition government. The Saudi state minister for gulf affairs has warned, “The Lebanese must choose between peace or aligning with Hezbollah.”
The Saudi announcement may also show that they are ready to openly confront what they view as an aggressive and expansionist Iran, whose proxy in Syria is Hezbollah, fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Some analysts think that the Saudis would not have delivered this ultimatum unless it had the backing of the United States, another proxy in the Syrian civil war who so far has been on the losing side of the conflict.
Unfortunately, this article ends where it begins: mired in the unbreakable web that weaves these two countries of Lebanon and Syria together. The proxies of Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now spinning an even bigger web, in which millions of refugees are caught and which will determine their future. One thing is certain: Any ensuing conflict will be fought on the battlefield of women’s bodies.