‘Syrian refugee victims of rape suffer in silence over legal, social fears’

AMMAN — Salwa thought her fear of being raped by Syrian forces ended when she left her home in Syria’s Daraa a few years ago, but her fear turned into a daily nightmare after she was repeatedly raped by her brother-in-law soon after she was resettled in the Zaatari camp to the northeast of Jordan.

In 2013, Salwa, not her real name, fled her house in Daraa along with her parents-in-law and her married brother-in-law after violence intensified in Daraa between opposition groups and Syrian forces, and after her husband was arrested by Syrian forces and then went missing.

Salwa’s nightmare started in the Zaatari camp, some 90km northeast of Amman, when she gave birth to her first son at the age of 16, according to a protection case specialist who dealt with the refugee’s case recently.

“When she gave birth, she was asked for documents, her marriage contract or any other document to prove she is married and who the father is,” the specialist told The Jordan Times on condition of anonymity.

“Her married brother-in-law suggested that she tell the authorities he is her husband and that she register the newborn in his name. She agreed and a birth certificate was issued with him being the father,” the specialist said.

A few months after she gave birth, her brother-in-law started to rape her, threatening to tell the authorities that she lied and that she will lose her son eventually.

Salwa remained silent and did not complain until a few months ago when she participated in a workshop on women rights and empowerment.

“Salwa told us her story,” the specialist added. Salwa was raped from end of 2013 until 2015.

“After she attended the workshop, she complained to me and spoke of the suffering she was going through,” the specialist said.

In spite of efforts to convince Salwa to complain to the authorities officially, she panicked and said she would not complain, fearing penalties or legal action against her, said the specialists.

“Her brother-in-law stopped raping her after some relief workers told him they were aware of the story that he is not the real father, and that he will face legal action… we managed to do something when she at least told us what she was going through,” the specialist added.

“The problem is we cannot do anything until women speak out and complain. If they do not complain, they will continue to be victims of all kinds of violations.”

According to UNHCR Jordan, several similar cases have been reported in the camp, which is home to 79,504 refugees, over the past few years.

‘Women should speak out’

“We continuously hold awareness and empowerment sessions for women at the camp to show up and complain. They should not fear any penalties. On the contrary, such cases will be protected and sheltered in women protection centres,” Nida Yassin, external relations associate at UNHCR Jordan, told The Jordan Times recently.

“Registering children in names of others who are not their real parents is a violation of the law, but it does not mean that women stay silent [about] violations [against them],” said Yassin.

“Women in such situations should not be afraid. Legal action will be taken against those who sexually assault them. Silence exacerbates the problems women face.”

The official added that UNHCR and other agencies working in the camp focus on women empowerment and raising awareness to enhance women’s protection against all violations.

Aysha, also from Daraa, arrived in Zaatari in 2013 with her family after her husband and many other relatives were killed amidst fighting between Syrian forces and rebels.

“When Aysha arrived in the camp, she was pregnant. At the time of birth, a man who also hails from the same village and knew her father suggested to him that Aysha register her child in his name… to obtain a refugee card for her child and start getting cash and other types of assistance. Aysha’s father agreed,” said the specialist.

“Months after giving birth, the man started to report to Aysha’s tent threatening her father that he would tell the authorities. The father was afraid and the man, who worked as a cleaner at one of the mosques in the camp, started to rape Aysha every day.”

After two years of suffering, Aysha officially complained to the authorities. Her father was sent back to Syria and the man was jailed, the specialist added.

The cases of Salwa and Aysha reflect the plight of Syrian women in refugee camps in general who suffer from “miserable living conditions”, the Jordanian Women’s Union’s executive director, Mukarram Odeh, told The Jordan Times.

“Women suffer the most at times of conflict. Even their very close family members try to sexually assault them, and because they are vulnerable, afraid and unaware of their rights, they do not complain and prefer to remain silent, fearing scandal,” Odeh said.

“We have dealt with several similar cases. In some of them, fathers forced their daughters to work in prostitution and husbands did the same too. Some forced them to work as beggars and ask strangers for money.”

“Women like this girl who was raped by her brother-in-law and many others do not complain. They prefer to endure the suffering, as they know society in general will disdain them. This is wrong and it makes rapists and others who violate women rights get away with it,” the activist added.

Stressing that empowerment is key to ending all types of violations against women, Odeh said more needs to be done.

“Unfortunately, we live in a patriarchal society where women are raised not to complain and to listen to the orders of their male supporters.”

The women’s union regularly holds awareness activities for Syrian women who fled the violence in their country into Jordan.

Such activities are held inside and outside camps, as Jordan is home to 1.3 million Syrians of whom only 10 per cent live in refugee camps.