The fragility of Syrian refugee women in Turkey

Burcu Karakaş reports on the everyday challanges for Syrian refugee women in Turkey: “Violence, exploitation, marginalisation: these are the challenges of a difficult everyday life for many Syrian refugee women in Turkey”


Refugees who took refuge in Turkey, escaping the war in Syria, October 2014 – kafeinkolik/Shutterstock

Rima, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is a young Syrian woman. Until five years ago, she was living in Syria with her family. One day, a bomb dropped on their house, killing her husband and three brothers. After this unexpected tragedy, Rima, mother of three, left her hometown for Turkey. In November 2013, she started a new life with her kids in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Sanliurfa, one of the oldest Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.

This was the beginning of new traumas. She accompanied her brother’s pregnant wife to the state hospital in Viransehir, a district of Urfa. There she was raped by a security guard and an interpreter. The attackers blackmailed her with videos and photographs. Rima was terrified, so she kept silent. In the following days the rape went on, and the number of attackers raised to seven. As a result of gang-rape, Rima was hospitalised for losing significant amounts of blood and taken to the intensive care unit. Luckily, she recovered. Now there is an ongoing investigation by Viransehir’s Public Prosecutor’s Office. Rima was brave enough to go to the Turkish police later. But not every Syrian refugee woman is.

Endemic violence

The June 2018 report “Needs Assessment of Syrian Women and Girls Under Temporary Protection Status in Turkey” by United Nations (UN) Women Turkey emphasises that Syrian refugee women are poorly informed about their rights to protection and the legal support services available to them. The same report shows that 73% of Syrian women are unaware of where to seek assistance related to violence or harassment.

According to official statistics, by December 2018 more than 3,6 million registered Syrian refugees are living in Turkey. 45,7% of them are female and half of this female population is under the age of 18. Refugee girls and women, who are more vulnerable to exploitation, are subjected to all forms of violence in their daily lives. On the other hand, services for Syrian refugees in Turkey are largely gender-blind, leaving many problems unsolved.

“I can’t recall a single Syrian refugee woman I have met who didn’t report violence. Marital rape is also very common, but many Syrian women don’t even define these experiences as abuse. They don’t even know that marital rape is a crime that will be punished”, says lawyer Gokce Yazar, a member of the Sanliurfa Bar Association Refugee Rights Commission.

Polygamous marriages

Volunteers in Turkey observe that child marriages and polygamous marriages are two major problems for Syrian refugee girls and women. Gokce Yazar, as one of the lawyers training Syrian women about divorce, continues: “How can women initiate divorce in a polygamous marriage? They can’t”.

Polygamous marriages, outlawed in Turkey – unlike Syria, are not only present among the Syrian community in Turkey. It is not a secret that Turkish men, mostly in rural areas, are also illegally “marrying” Syrian women as their second or third wives.

There are even websites promoting Syrian women for Turkish men. One of these websites, called “Syrian Women”, features several sexist stereotypes such as “What Syrian women want”. One of the sections on this so-called “marriage website” reads as follows:

“There are many Syrian refugees in Turkey. In every city you can bump into a Syrian. Syrian women are fragile just like our women. Since Syrian women do not set a condition for legal marriage, you can live with them without marrying them”.

Forced into prostitution

In addition to marriage cases, forced prostitution is another fundamental problem. Some Syrian women often become sex workers after escaping domestic violence. Some of them are forced into sex work by their partners. Others are exploited by gangs of human traffickers on the way.

“In Viransehir, Syrian women are forced into prostitution just to get some milk or diaper for their babies”, says lawyer Yazar, adding that the Sanliurfa Bar Association is still receiving such complaints.

This article was originally published by OBC Transeuropa