Children have witnessed massacres, mothers seen their sons killed, families watched their homes burned. But there is one act of violence that refugees from the Syrian crisis will not discuss.

The conflict has been distinguished by a brutal targeting of women. The United Nations has gathered evidence of systematic sexual assault of women and girls by combatants in Syria, and describes rape as “a weapon of war”. Outside the conflict, in sprawling camps and overloaded host communities, aid workers report a soaring number of incidents of domestic violence and rampant sexual exploitation.

But this is a deeply conservative society. The violence suffered by Syrian women and girls is hidden under a blanket of fear, shame and silence that even international aid workers are loth to lift.

Dr. Manal Tahtamouni is the director of the Institute for Family Health, a local NGO funded by the European commission that was among the first to open a women’s clinic in Zaatari refugee camp. When asked, she said, most women will not admit to being raped. They will say they have seen others being raped.

“This is a conservative area. If you have been raped, you wouldn’t talk openly about it because you would be stigmatised for your entire life. The phenomenon is massively under-reported”, Dr. Tahtamouni said.

“There is a tendency to think that once [women] have crossed the border, they are safe”, says Melanie Megevand, a specialist in gender-based violence at International Rescue Committee charity. “But they just face a different violence once they become refugees.” In a reversal of the cultural norm, many families here are headed by women. Fathers and husbands have either been killed or gone to fight.

Um Firas has lived in Mafraq, near Zaatari, for more than a year since escaping Homs. She rarely leaves her home. Her husband disappeared years before the war so she is alone, accumulating an enormous debt to cover her rent. She still believes her family is better off in debt than inside the camp.

She is particularly concerned for her teenage daughter, who took to sunbathing until her skin burned in Syria. “She told me, ‘If I turn black, the Shabiha [pro-government militia] might not want to rape me”, she said. “They were targeting women. Iranian and Hezbollah fighters came into our neighbourhood with their swords drawn. The women they found, they raped. They burned our homes”, she adds, too exhausted by grief to stop crying.

“I saw maybe 100 women stripped naked and used as human shields, forced to walk on all sides of the army tanks during the fighting. When their tanks rolled back into the Alawite neighbourhood, the women disappeared with them.” Reverend Nour Sahawneh leads the community effort to help refugee families in Mafraq. He has noticed with alarm a growing number of men flying in from the Gulf states to take Syrian girls from their desperate families.

“Their pale skin, the way they talk, cook — it’s a fantasy for them, even if she is only 14”, Rev. Sahawneh said.

“Yesterday I heard a man I know accepted 9,000 dinars from a Saudi guy for his 15 year-old daughter. He will take his ‘wife’ to a flat and stay with her for a few months then go home without her. It’s illegal to marry women under 18 in Jordan. Saudi men cannot marry non-Saudis without permission. She is not a wife but for sex only.”

© Guardian News Service

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