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Statements and speeches Independent investigation

Gendered impact of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic on women and girls

Commissioner Lynn Welchman’s remarks to webinar

12 June 2023

The policy paper (العربية | English) we are presenting today focuses on the direct negative consequences of the protracted conflict on women and girls in Syria, particularly as a result of massive displacement and the growth in number of women heads of households, including widows and wives of the hundreds of thousands killed, disappeared or missing in Syria.

The conflict has affected women and girls’ ability to enjoy their most basic rights, for example the right to food and health.  In Syria, almost 6 million people are in dire need of nutritional assistance -  74 % of them are women and girls.  

Women-headed households are twice as likely to report a complete inability to meet basic needs in comparison with male-headed households.

Those who live in protracted displacement are even worse affected:  92% of female-headed households living in displacement camps in Syria report insufficient ability or complete inability to meet basic needs.

Systematic attacks on health care facilities throughout the conflict have in many areas reduced women and girls’ access to health care, including reproductive health care services.,

Like men and boys, women and girls continue to be affected by conflict-related violations, such as indiscriminate attacks, detention and enforced disappearance.

However, they also experience discriminatory treatment based on their gender, in a variety of other contexts, for example, when they are coping with the enforced disappearance of their husband; when they are left to fend for themselves as widows, or when forced to live in displacement camps.  

In recent years, a number of laws and practices negatively impacting women and girls in Syria have been found by international human rights bodies to be discriminatory, and in violation of Syria’s human rights treaty obligations. Although some limited progress has been made in some areas, the Government of Syria has so far largely failed to implement positive measures and legal reforms recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international human rights bodies.

Fear of stigmatization and its consequences has created greater hardships and undermined the potential gains or benefits from legal reforms introduced by the government; violence against women and girls has become more entrenched.

Women and girls are not faring much better in the areas controlled by various armed opposition groups in the North and North-west, where even the modest legal reforms introduced by the government to Syrian legislation after 2011 are not applied.

Across all areas of Syria, early and forced marriages – mostly of girls – are reported to have  increased as a consequence of the conflict.  Such marriages are frequently deployed as a coping mechanism to alleviate financial hardship exacerbated by the conflict, or to mitigate reputational risks for family honour amid increased risks of sexual violence in overcrowded living arrangements caused by destruction to homes and displacement.

Pre-existing discriminatory practices and laws, often reinforced by societal cultural norms, already placed women and girls at a disadvantage prior to the conflict, including  for example, in regard to equality before the law; protection against violence; equitable distribution of inheritance; access to housing and property; the right to family and custody of children; conferral of nationality to children; and sometimes freedom of movement.

In a conflict scenario, legal and societal discrimination is negatively impacting women and girls in new ways, and needs urgent attention from the government and indeed from all those in authority in different parts of Syria.

While both men and women in Syria have been subjected to enforced disappearance, the vast majority of those disappeared are men and boys. As a consequence, tens of thousands of women across Syria continue to search for their spouses who have gone missing or been forcibly disappeared, primarily by Government forces.

Many women  - like Yasmen here with us today - lead the work of victims’ groups advocating for the release of detainees and clarification of the fate of those missing. The wives and family members left behind remain in emotional and legal limbo, unable to settle key legal aspects of their lives.

Under international human rights law, the cumulative emotional suffering of family members of victims of enforced disappearance is recognized as cruel and inhuman treatment.

Access to housing and property is particularly complex for the increasing numbers of widows and other female heads of household, including those whose husbands have been forcibly disappeared. The challenges related to their access to housing are exacerbated by cultural norms, paired with discriminatory laws governing the distribution of inheritance. Sources estimate that the percentage of women in Syria who own residential property may be as low as 2-5 %.

With such low numbers of female property owners, women often find their access to  property curtailed if their husband or father is forcibly disappeared, or when properties or assets belonging to male relatives are frozen or confiscated on the pretext of counter terrorism legislation.

Female heads of households and other women and girls living in prolonged displacement due to conflict, often in camps, survive under exceptional hardship, with many of them facing multiple and intersecting discriminatory treatment and harassment due to their gender and marital status. Displaced widows in northwest Syria may face specific restrictions on human rights such as freedom of movement, based on cultural stereotyping and  discrimination against  widows

Many women face stigmatization and discrimination based on their husbands’ alleged ties to Da’esh. In northeast Syria, some 56,000 people are interned in appalling conditions in al-Hawl and al-Rawj camps, constituting unlawful deprivation of liberty and cruel and inhuman treatment.  They include over 37,000 foreigners from approximately 66 countries, and  the majority  are widows and wives of alleged Da’esh fighters, their daughters and young sons.

In 2023, the Commission found that the form, severity, duration and intensity of the physical and mental suffering inflicted on people on these camps may amount to the war crime of committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, in relation to each interned individual.

As a consequence of the conflict, although statistics are unavailable, information collected by humanitarian agencies indicates that Syrian children frequently lack civil documentation or ID documents, and are at risk of remaining unregistered, and in practical terms, stateless. Access to identity and civil documentation is also challenging for Syrian refugees abroad, with exorbitant fees being charged for certain documents, such as passports, by Syrian embassies.

Alongside an exponential growth in unregistered or customary marriages during the  conflict, this is in particular affecting the families of widows and other women- headed households. Their children remain at an increased risk of statelessness, which may compromise their recognition as a person before the law.  Lack of documentation may also hamper their access to education and medical services, putting further strain on female-headed households.

All Syrian children, wherever they are born and regardless of the circumstances of their parents, have the right to identity and nationality.  The government, as well as de facto authorities, should urgently take steps to further facilitate the issuing of official and recognized identity documents for children in all parts of the country, including children in women headed families, as well as those abroad, and to ensure Syrian nationality for those children who are not yet registered as such, in accordance with Syria’s obligations under international human rights law.  

During the conflict and throughout the country, all types of sexual and gender-based violence have reportedly increased.

As rape may constitute torture, the United Nations Committee against Torture, like CEDAW, has urged Syria to amend its criminal legislation with regard to a number of forms of violence particularly affecting women, to bring its legislation into compliance with the Convention Against Torture, such as criminalization of marital rape and domestic violence. These recommendations remain largely unimplemented, notwithstanding commitments made by the Government of Syria.   

The almost complete absence of protective measures for victims, such as shelters, coupled with stigmatization and prejudice against survivors, makes it exceptionally challenging for survivors to achieve justice.  

To achieve accountability for such crimes and violations, more must be done to eradicate stigmatization and negative stereotypes of women, in all spheres of society.   Victims of gender-violence must not be met with prejudice or shame.  Awareness-raising efforts targeting the general public and the educational system, the media and religious and community leaders, must be scaled up across Syria – and not be restricted and subject to suspicion, which is the case today, in areas under Government control as well as areas controlled by armed groups.

   During the past decade, significant efforts have been undertaken by Syrian women and men towards the strengthening of women and girls’ empowerment and protection. Numerous Syrian women’s rights and civil society organizations are fighting to raise awareness in areas such as women’s human rights, gender equality and non-discrimination.

But this alone is not enough. The primary duty bearers, namely the Government of Syria, as well as de-facto authorities in different parts of the country, must step up to fulfil their international obligations, through a broad range of further strategies and actions,  to eradicate discrimination against women and girls,  to ensure their protection from all forms of gender-based violence, to afford them equal opportunities to create livelihoods, and to promote their full participation in public life.

On behalf of Commissioner Welchman, she is very sorry that she was unable to be live with you today, and she sends her greetings and solidarity to all those working to mitigate the harms caused by the gendered impact of the conflict on women and girls in Syria. 

Thank you.