Sex for Food: With Nowhere Else to Turn, Women of Syria's Aleppo Face Exploitation by Aid Workers

Women are the sole breadwinners for almost half of the families of Aleppo, where men are scarce. But with no source of income, the city's women are forced to rely on local workers for aid

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Displaced Syrian women in the Azaz camp for displaced people, north of Aleppo province, Syria, February 21, 2013
Displaced Syrian women in the Azaz camp for displaced people, north of Aleppo province, Syria, February 21, 2013Credit: Manu Brabo / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The women of Aleppo had no reason to celebrate International Women’s Day this year, even though the Lebanese news site rasif22 dubbed Aleppo “the women’s republic.” In the quarters of the ruined city, liberated about four months ago from rebel militias, few men can still be seen. Most were killed or have fled, others are detained, missing, or waiting outside the city in refugee camps until the streets are cleared of mines and IEDs.

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About a million and a half people lived in Syria’s second largest city before the war. Now, about 100,000 to 300,000 are left, depending on the source of information. According to a report on the Syrian humanitarian website, over the past two years, in two out of every five families, women are the sole breadwinners. The term “breadwinner” is misleading. These women have no place of employment or source of income other than the assistance they receive from international aid groups, which distribute clothing and hot meals. Most of the families have no electricity or running water, and must purchase electricity at high cost from generator owners, water by the gallon from water vendors. There is no fuel at all for heating.

Some of the families are “lucky,” because they have members serving in the Syrian military and they receive some salary, albeit not paid regularly. Boys who remained in the city earn a living hand to mouth, up to $10 a week. “This amount is hardly enough for tea, bread and sugar, milk is already a luxury,” one of the women told rasif22. The woman, who is raising six children, said that only now had some of the kids gone back to school, which is being held in a ruined building in a few rooms that have been rebuilt. Another problem is that babies born during the war have not been registered anywhere because government offices have been closed all this time. Thus, they are not eligible for allocations or to register for kindergarten. The authorities demand a registration fee of $7 per child, in addition to the cost of traveling to a registration office, which costs another 22 cents. These are huge amounts for the women of Aleppo.

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Women walk along a street after they were evacuated with others by the Syria Democratic Forces fighters from an ISIS-controlled neighborhood of Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, August 12, 2016.Credit: RODI SAID/Reuters

The situation of single mothers is good compared to that of the women who have to sell their bodies to obtain aid from charity groups. Aid is distributed by local workers, who exploit their position to demand sexual favors in exchange for food. One such woman said that an organization employee proposed a “temporary marriage” to her in exchange for the promise of a continuing supply of food. When she refused, he told her she would no longer receive aid.

Other women reported that they avoid the distribution centers out of fear of harassment, humiliation or even rape. According to one woman, in her neighborhood the connection between food and sex has become so common that women don’t go to the distribution centers for fear that their neighbors will look on them as prostitutes.

A more detailed research report was recently published by ReliefWeb, the United Nations center on global crises and disasters, entitled “Voice from Syria 2018.” Its 158 pages are full of data and chilling testimony about harassment, abuse and sexual attacks on women, teenage girls and younger girls in the regime’s installations and refugee camps, which are the least safe places for women. Assistance is “rarely received for free. Mostly they are distributed for money or for sexual services, such as marriage for a short period of time, to receive a meal,” according to the testimony of a woman from the village of Kafr Batna near Damascus. Two charity groups admitted that they were aware of such cases, and said they had broken off ties with aid contractors who committed such acts. But many women do not complain because of their dependence on the aid packages, or to avoid shame.

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Yet even the sorry state of these women does not reach the level of misery of the women under arrest in the regime’s prisons. A brief report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights to mark International Women’s Day cites 7,699 cases of sexual abuse by Syrian regime forces against women, 864 of which took place inside regime prisons from 2008 to 2011. This is in addition to the tens of thousands of cases of sexual abuse by rebel militia soldiers, Islamic State and criminal gangs. The report, incidentally, does not spare its criticism of the autonomously ruled Kurdish regions in the north, where it says women and girls have been forced to join the Kurdish fighting forces.

“The worst was undoubtedly how Syrian women were let down by the international community [which] has utterly failed to protect their most basic rights, such as the right to life, right of residence, ceasing torture, and releasing women detainees,” the report states. For these women, International Women’s Day is more torture, because it reminds them of the gap between their situation – a continual struggle for survival – and that of women in the West.

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