DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–Um Ali is scared. She says male relatives want to kill her and sell her daughters into marriages that are really sex-trafficking arrangements that put young women to work in brothels overseas.
She lives in hiding and relocates often. Her pulse accelerates every time an international text message pops into her cell phone.
"The world is small," wrote her brother in a recent threat.
Um Ali is one of over a million refugees who have sought shelter in Syria since U.S. troops entered Iraq in 2003. She left with her husband and children during a wave of militia violence against Iraqis working–"collaborating"–with Americans in 2006.
Some girls and women among these refugees face being sex trafficked by people within their own families. No statistics or studies are available on this specific problem, but there are plenty of stories of men in a pinch treating female relatives as young as 13 as commodities for sex and marriage markets.
Dodging such threats is particularly hard for women when they come from inside the family. Women who run away risk being branded prostitutes and subject to death at the hands of "dishonored" male kin.
"Iraqi women are fleeing violence in their country and in their families," psychologist Mari Samaan told Women’s eNews. "Syrian society and women like Um Ali pay the price for America’s war in Iraq."
She says that the longer a woman such as Um Ali survives on her own, the more likely it is that male relatives will suspect her of sex work. Many of these women lack professional skills. Marrying young and depending on men all their lives, they struggle to cope without a male provider and protector in Syria.
"Iraqi traditions are hard," Samaan said. "Every woman without a husband or family watching over her is seen as prostitute. I have seen girls raped by armies and militias and then killed by her own families."
Despite Syria’s increasing efforts to prevent sex trafficking, many face the sorts of dangers Um Ali is trying to evade.
Married at age 12 to a man who went on to beat and belt her for 21 years, Um Ali wanted a different fate for her three teenage daughters.
"In Iraq, he only hit me," she told Women’s eNews. "In Syria, he started on the girls. I want them to choose their path in life, unlike me. They are smart and they love to study. If they were safe from these threats, they could finish school."
When a family friend gave his daughter to a Saudi man in marriage in exchange for a huge dowry, an idea lit up in her husband’s head.
"He doesn’t think," Um Ali said. "All he can think of is money."
Soon the marriage proposals trickled in, including one from an Iraqi man she suspected of running a brothel in the United States. Gambling debts her husband had accrued in Syria forced him to flee back to Iraq before he could cash in on the transaction.
Chance at Divorce
Left behind, Um Ali seized the opportunity to file for divorce. Evicted by her landlord because she was unable to afford rent, she shuttled her four children and 20 suitcases to temporary housing, each time vulnerable to sex requests from tenants and owners, until finally landing at a U.N.-funded shelter for women in late 2009.
A falling out with the shelter’s management put her on the streets again with only a 24-hour notice. She says she left involuntarily but was coerced to sign to the contrary under threats of internment in a mental asylum and interference with her resettlement case.
Um Ali, her three daughters and one son now share a single room apartment with a tiny kitchen-bathroom annexed to it. Despite receiving a monthly U.N. stipend–the standard $220 for households headed by women–she can’t afford to buy potable water in the summer when taps have dried out.
She pays $177 in rent and spends the rest–less than $1.50 a day–feeding five people.
"We are desperate," she told Women’s eNews. "No one protects us. The U.N. has failed us."
She has received five new text message threats since leaving the women’s shelter last summer. Panic attacks and nightmares follow. In her fear of being found by her brothers or ex-husband, she has cut all ties with her nuclear and extended family.
April Trafficking Law
Syria is scaling up its efforts to protect refugee women such as Um Ali who are vulnerable to kidnapping, sex-trafficking and forced prostitution while trying to survive in low-income suburbs of Damascus.
A law that took effect in April established protection measures for victims of trafficking as well as punishments of at least seven years for its perpetrators and beneficiaries.
To promote the law’s implementation and share best practices, Damascus in June hosted a global conference on human trafficking that brought together more than 120 law enforcement and non-governmental experts from over 50 countries through INTERPOL, the international police organization based in Lyon, France.
National and international organizations have also hosted a variety of awareness-raising initiatives. In September, the Syrian Women’s Union, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Organization for Migration held a two-day workshop in Damascus on stepping up anti-trafficking measures.
"Trafficking is increasingly a problem due to armed conflicts in our region," said Majida Qutaiet, head of the Damascus-based Syria Women’s Union, which plans to open a counseling center for survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence in 2011. There is already one center in the northern city of Aleppo and one center in Damascus.