Women face chronic violence in Syria’s ‘widow camps’, report warns

Women and children living in some of the hardest-to-reach camps in north-west Syria face chronic and high levels of violence and depression, with some women forced to engage in “survival sex”, a new report has revealed.

Children in so-called “widow camps” have been found to be severely neglected, abused and forced to work while mothers are at “breaking point” psychologically. More than 80% of women say they do not have adequate healthcare and 95% expressed feelings of hopelessness.

About 34% of children said that they have experienced one or more forms of violence and 2% said they married young. Child labour is a big problem with 58% of boys and 49% of girls aged 11 or older forced to work.

Of the 419 people interviewed by the NGO World Vision in 28 camps, home to tens of thousands of single women – including those who are divorced or whose husbands are missing – and their children, approximately one in four women said they had witnessed sexual abuse in the camp on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. About 9% of respondents said they themselves had been sexually abused.

Women are not allowed to freely leave the camps, said the NGO. Unable to seek paid employment or support their families, some find they have “no choice” but to engage in so-called survival sex with male guards and camp managers.

Alexandra Matei, a lead author of the report, said: “We are seeing the world, rightly, express solidarity with the victims of the conflict in Ukraine and governments generously committed to do whatever it takes to meet the humanitarian needs there. But Syrian widows and their children deserve the same level of empathy, compassion and commitment. Their pain, their desperation, their need is no less than anyone else who is fleeing conflict.”

Fatima (not her real name), a mother of three in one of the camps, suffers from severe back pain but is unable to access healthcare.

“We do not even have bread and water,” she said. “When [children] ask for bananas, I ask them to be patient. There is nothing we can do. Water and bread are more important.”

She said it was not safe for women and girls to go to the mountain to fetch wood to heat themselves or cook.

“It is not safe at all. I have to take my neighbour or anyone with me just to not go alone. I cannot send my children on their own either, because it is not safe. I do not have anyone.”

Nearly 7 million Syrians have been displaced internally since conflict erupted in 2011. About 2.8 million are living in an estimated 1,300 camps for internally displaced people in the north-west of the country.

Widow camps in Idlib and Aleppo are managed by the Syrian opposition and the Turkish military. Conditions there are deemed “drastically” worse than in general camps. There is little or no delivery of essential services for residents, who are experiencing what aid workers have described as “a shocking crisis within a crisis” and “the worst of the worst’’ protection challenges. Access has been restricted to local NGOs.

World Vision’s report comes before the government pledging conference on Syria in Brussels in May. Funding has dropped to its lowest level since 2015 due to what the report said was “donor fatigue and Covid-19”. Less than half of the Syria humanitarian response plan was met last year. More than 14 million Syrians were in need of some form of aid as of last month, according to the UN.

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