old DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–Before she came here and wound up depending on U.N. refugee aid, Tahira al Sayed lived in Iraq and had other problems.

There she endured the repudiation of her family for marrying a Kurd and the rejection of her in-laws because she was an Arab before the fall of Saddam Hussein. She survived domestic violence at the hands of her husband.

During the sectarian violence of 2006, her husband said local militias had threatened him so the couple fled to Jordan and then Syria. Less than a year later, her husband disappeared, leaving her with four children, the eldest now age 10, the youngest 5.

She turned to the Maktab Al Khomeini office–known for assisting Shia war widows– in Damascus for help. The group advised her to get a mut’ah, or "pleasure marriage," she said. That way she would have a male guardian to fend for her and her children.

The contract that backs up this pleasure marriage–in which sex is exchanged for a mutually agreed upon time frame and dowry–skips secular law but is considered legitimate in Iran and enjoys the endorsement of many Shia clerics across the region.

At the time she received the advice al Sayed was still married (she’s divorced now) so she didn’t pursue the advice. "If this marriage isn’t registered in court, it’s prostitution," al Sayed said. "In Iraq, mut’ah is considered halal, but men will not accept it for female relatives because deep down they see it as haram, as prostitution."

Her landlady encouraged her to enter a "benefits" relationship, where she would sleep with a man in exchange for his protection without any contractual obligation. She declined and soon after the landlady’s brother tried to rape her.

Landlord Complaints

She is one of many single Iraqi women who complain of sexual harassment by landlords or landlords’ family or friends.

The U.N. provides food and financial assistance to registered Iraqi female refugees to decrease their risk of sexual exploitation. The agency stressed at a recent conference that prolonged displacement increases financial pressures and puts women at risk of forced prostitution and trafficking.

"We have girls left and sold by their families and subject to all kinds of exploitation," Aseer al-Madaien, a protection officer with the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, told Women’s eNews.

The humanitarian agency does not issue statistics but al-Madaien thinks the situation is getting worse. "In the last six months, we have seen an increase in family-related threats and abuses. But many women don’t report it."

At-risk women and girls in Syria are in need of more shelters and specialized support, she said.

Today, al Sayed is over $200 in debt and out of options. The rent she owes is higher than the monthly assistance she gets from the United Nations.

"I would work anything to survive," she told Women’s eNews. "To work is more honorable than people giving me. But every time I ask for a job the reply is a request for sex. I am scared to make a single move."

She contemplates splitting the family. One of her children has become deliriously malnourished and speaks either to himself or to imaginary beings in turn. Day after day, the family sits inside with nothing to do.

"Maybe if I lit myself up," she said, "The world would see there are Iraqi women and children living in darkness."

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Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

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Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project: