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Syria has for the last decade or so been plunged into a full-on civil uprising. Apart from the loss of life, living conditions in most parts of Syria have deteriorated, to say the least. The women and children of Syria bare the brunt of the aftermath of the civil strife with matters being made worse by cases of sexual harassment by aid workers.
According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) dabbed ‘Voices from Syria 2018’ women in Syria’s refugee camps are often harassed by aid workers for sexual favors in order for them to gain access to the aid being provided. The harassment is worse for women and girls who come from households that lack male protection. According to this report, it is not uncommon to find aid workers offering to escort women and girls to their homes in order to ‘ collect something’ or ‘get something back’. Other women are forced into a temporary marriage with third-party officials subcontracted by the UN to ensure that the aid gets to those that need it the most. The purpose of the marriage is to enable the workers to gain sexual favors from these women and act as an assurance to the women receiving aid for their families. According to the refugees, the amount of aid meted out to a female refugee is directly proportional to the sexual favors given to the aid worker.
This rampant harassment by aid workers has led to the decline in the number of women seeking humanitarian aid in the designated aid centers. They fear the speculation and backlash from the rest of the community that would assume they yielded to the pressure and traded their bodies for food and other necessities. The harassment cases and the fear that they have inculcated in Syrian women are acting as a barrier to the effective distribution of humanitarian aid.
These accusations come shortly after similar accusations involving Oxfam staff were made in Haiti. This is, however, not the first time that the UN and other humanitarian agencies are being warned of such incidences. In 2015, a survey by the International Rescue Committee showed that cases of sexual harassment in exchange for humanitarian aid were evident in the cities of Dara’a and Quneitra in southern Syria.
Following the release of this survey both the UN and other humanitarian agencies, the IRC included agreed to take stricter measures to ensure the safety of female Syrian refugees. In light of the just-released report, the UN High Commissioner came to its defense stating the lack of sufficient information to both identify and bring to book those implicated in such cases both in 2015 and currently. He, however, pointed out that The UNHCR had been tasked with gathering more information on these cases.
These allegations add to the already brewing mistrust of the UN in Syria. The international body has been accused of taking sides where the Syrian conflict is concerned. It has also been accused of leaving aid allocation decisions within Syria to the discretion of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.