Syria: sex for aid. Women, war and charities

A new scandal breaks in the world of charities. After those surrounding Oxfam, aid workers operating in Syria in the behalf of the UN and international charities have been charged with sexual exploitation against vulnerable women in Syria. According to the UN report “Voices from Syria 2018”, indeed, sexual exploitation and harassment of women and girls by humanitarian workers is a quite common practice in aid distribution sites in various governorates of Syria. After a long cue waiting for their turn, women would be posed in front of a deal: aid in the exchange of sex, or nothing.

The news spread worldwide on the 27th of February 2018, when the BBC published an interview with Danielle Spencer, a humanitarian adviser working for a charity, who denounced what Syrian women looking for aid are forced to do by humanitarian workers. This declaration seems to be confirmed by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), which issued in November 2017 a report titled “Voices from Syria 2018” focused on gender-based violence in Syria. Basing its survey on focus group discussions with the local population of different Syrian governorates, UNFPA conducted an assessment of gender-based violence and, among all the unfortunately numerous types of violence against women in Syria, it found that “sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers at distributions was commonly cited by participants as a risk faced by women and girls when trying to access aid”.

The report also offers examples of the way in which aid workers have been harassing women. They entail “women or girls marrying officials for a short period of time for ‘sexual services’ in order to receive meals, distributors asking for telephone numbers of women and girls, giving them lifts to their houses ‘to take something in return’ or obtaining distributions ‘in exchange for a visit to her home’ or ‘in exchange for services such as spending a night with them’”. The awareness of the existence of these dangers in certain governorates was so widespread among the population that some women, already scared about themselves, stopped going to distributions sites because “afraid that their reputation would be defamed”. Not only sexual exploitation by aid workers, therefore, but also stigmatisation given by social pressure are the major concerns especially for those women who are not accompanied by a man, the report continues.

But this is not the first time that sexual abuses against Syrian women and girls by charities’ workers are denounced. Apparently, it has been ignored for years. In her interview to the BBC, Ms Spencer declared that she had already reported in 2015 that a group of Syrian women living in Dara’a and Quneitra, that she met in a refugee camp in Jordan in March 2015, had been sexually exploited in exchange of aid. In her words, in 2015 already the phenomenon “was so endemic that they couldn’t actually go without being stigmatised”. 2015 is also the year in which a survey made by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) in the areas of Dara’a and Quneitra reported that 40% of the 190 girls and women interviewed said that sexual violence took place when they were accessing services, including humanitarian aid. After the IRC report was presented at a meeting of UN agencies and international charities hosted by the UNFPA in Amman in July 2015, aid agencies declared that they would have tightened control measures on their operators. A BBC source attending the meeting said that “there were credible reports of sexual exploitation and abuse going on during the cross-border aid delivery and the UN didn’t make any serious moves to address it or end it.” Similarly, Ms Spencer argues that the aid sector decided consciously to ignore sexual abuse by humanitarian workers to ensure that aid still reached their destination.

But who are these people working for charities and exploiting women they are supposed to help? Why is it so difficult to aid agencies to monitor their behaviour? Don’t they ascertain the reliability of their operators? These are the questions that come to mind when reading about sex scandals in the international cooperation field. Answering, however, is very difficult. As mentioned before, aid agencies try to solve their internal issues without making them public, worrying about their international reputation and fearing a drop in donations. With regard to Syria, both the identity of the aid workers charged with sexual exploitation and the names of the aid agencies they worked for are not clear. In her interview, Ms Spencer spoke about “men from local councils”, while another BBC source said that “some humanitarian agencies were turning a blind eye to the exploitation because using third parties and local officials was the only way of getting aid into dangerous parts of Syria that international staff could not access”. Local staff, indeed, are supposed to have greater access to the population in need because of their wider knowledge of the local context. This is not to say that sexual abuses in the aid sector are due to the presence of local people among charities’ staff. The Oxfam scandal, in fact, involved international staff, similarly to many other unfortunately numerous scandals in the history of international cooperation. Furthermore, abuses are not only against vulnerable local people but also against members of the staff itself, as the scandal surrounding Save the Children shows.

It seems clear, therefore, that charities have a problem of monitoring extensively the conduct of their employees, as well as a tendency to hide episodes of misbehaviour among them to avoid a negative impact on donations. In other words, the aid sector has a problem of accountability that stems from the fact that charities are considered trustworthy as a principle, since their mission is to help disadvantaged people. As a consequence, they are expected to monitor themselves their employees’ behaviour. Again, this is not to say that one should no more trust charities and stop donations. This is to highlight that even charities have their own weaknesses that are necessary to fix. Hiding misbehaviours has been shown to be the worst solution: when the scandal comes out, economic losses are dramatic and they last as long as the scandal is under the attention of the public, which means a lot of time. On the contrary, making misbehaviours public enhances accountability, even though it may lead to economic losses in the short-term. Another measure that could be applied is assigning to a third part the task of monitoring employees’ activities. Anyway, a solution has to be found very soon. The risk is to allow thoughts against the aid sector to gain ground in the public opinion and to weaken all the good job that charities do in the most disadvantaged and dangerous areas of the world, such as Syria.

Ilaria Guidoni

Born in Rome in 1994, I studied Contemporary History at Sapienza University of Rome and then I moved to Turin to attend a master’s degree in International Sciences. Currently, I’m an Erasmus student at SOAS University of London, where I’m nurturing my passion for Middle East politics. In general, I’m very interested in geopolitics and international relations, but I also love reading and participating in debates related to feminism and human rights. I’m happy to write on Social News to share my knowledge not only with university fellows but also with a broader audience, hoping to defy stereotypes and false assumption that often lead to misinterpretation of the reality and of different cultures’ principles. I think that human rights are at the basis of any inter-personal relationship and that their enforcement is not only an International Organizations’ prerogative, but it starts from the bottom, from ordinary people and their actions in ordinary life. 

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