Syrian women in need of humanitarian assistance are being sexually exploited by men distributing aid on behalf of the United Nations and charities, a report has found.
The findings of a report on gender-based violence by the UN’s Population Fund revealed that in some provinces food and lifts home were being provided in exchange for sexual favours.
The report – Voices from Syria 2018 – listed examples of how women were blackmailed by distributors, who were local officials working in areas of the war-torn country international charities were unable to access.
"Examples were given of women or girls marrying officials for a short period of time for 'sexual services' in order to receive meals; distributors asking for telephone numbers of women and girls; giving them lifts to their houses 'to take something in return' or obtaining distributions 'in exchange for a visit to her home' or 'in exchange for services, such as spending a night with them'," the document said.
“Women and girls 'without male protectors', such as widows and divorcees as well as female IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), were regarded as particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation,” it said.
However, humanitarian agencies have been aware of the abuse for three years, according to one whistleblower who said leading agencies had received reports of the abuse as early as 2015.
Danielle Spencer, a charity humanitarian adviser, said she heard reports from Syrian women at a refugee camp in Jordan in 2015 that male council workers were giving aid in exchange for sex.
Ms Spencer said the men, who were distributing aid in Dara’a, in the south-west and Quneitra in the west would withhold supplies to some women who visited distribution centres unless they had sex with them.
“It was so endemic that they couldn't actually go without being stigmatised. It was assumed that if you go to these distributions, that you will have performed some kind of sexual act in return for aid,” she told the BBC.
Ms Spencer said she believed humanitarian agencies were ignoring the abuse reports because they needed third parties and local officials to get aid into some of the most dangerous parts of the country.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls has been ignored, it's been known about and ignored for seven years,” she said.
“The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women's bodies to be sacrificed,” she explained. “Somewhere there has been a decision made that it is OK for women's bodies to continue to be used, abused, violated in order for aid to be delivered for a larger group of people.”
Outside workers are often used by international charities in conflict areas where it is not safe to send aid workers, said Dr Christopher Phillips, reader in International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.
"There's often difficulty with getting insurance so they supplement their forces with third parties," Dr Phillips told The National.
"Some organisations might not work with whoever is controlling the area, such as the Assad government. Often organisations get around their unwillingness to publicly work with such regimes by working with third parties."
Separately another report conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that 40 per cent of 190 women surveyed said that sexual violence had taken place when they tried to access humanitarian assistance in Dara’a and Quneitra.
The IRC report as well as reports heard by Ms Spencer were presented to UN agencies and international charities during a high-level meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman in July 2015.
Some aid agencies set out new measures to better protect women in Syria after attending the meeting. The IRC said it had “launched new programmes and systems” to ensure women were not abused at that time. The UK-based international charity Care said it had ceased giving aid to local councils to distribute.
The warnings of aid for sex emerged in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, which revealed that aid workers had been paying prostitutes during the emergency relief operations when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti.
"It is very difficult for these aid organisations to monitor absolutely everyone," Dr Phillips added. "There seems to be a degree of trust at play there, which nefarious people are exploiting and taking advantage of vulnerable people."
Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday the government were committed to a “zero-tolerance approach” to charities which fail to address sexual exploitation.
Speaking in response to the report, he said: “We won’t support agencies that engage in that kind of activity.”
A spokesman for the UK's Department for International Development told The National it was not aware of any cases of sexual exploitation in Syria involving British aid.