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Common analysis
Last updated: September 2020

COI summary

Sexual and gender-based violence have been prevalent in Syria for decades, in both public and private spheres, and the armed conflict reportedly exacerbated the situation. Throughout the conflict, Syrian women and girls have been subjected to different types of violations, such as extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, forced displacement, siege warfare, and denial of healthcare and basic services [Targeting, 1.1.2; Situation of women, 1.1.2 - 1.1.4].

Widows and divorced women as well as girls are considered to be at particular risk of sexual violence, forced marriage, exploitation and negative coping mechanisms. Other factors, such as poverty, displacement, being the head of a household, or being of young age and outside parental supervision also exposed women and girls to the risk of sexual exploitation in exchange for money, work or access to humanitarian assistance. Movement restrictions for women and girls are also in place in all Syrian governorates and are related to the risk of sexual violence and to harmful gender and social norms. Such restrictions are either self-imposed or imposed on women and girls by their family members or wider community [Situation of women, 1.1.1 - 1.1.3].

Sexual violence, domestic violence, and early and/or forced marriage are considered to be the most common forms of violence against women, taking place all over Syria, including in areas under the control of the Kurdish-led SDF and in areas controlled by the Turkey-backed forces [Situation of women, 1.1.3].

Effective protection of women against violence is limited, with enforcement being either weak or non-existent. For example, it is reported that although the law criminalises rape and sexual assault of women, men and children, the GoS does not enforce the law effectively. Moreover, Syrian law reduces or suspends punishment in the cases where the perpetrator marries the victim. There are also limited to no mechanisms available for women to file complaints. The absence of law enforcement, including judicial redress mechanisms, allows perpetrators to act with impunity. In addition, the general lawlessness has led to the corrosion of existing social protection mechanisms among Syrian communities. In areas controlled by non-State armed groups, formal justice systems are either non-existent or reportedly distrusted by women and girls [Situation of women, 1.1.3, 1.2.4].

Socio-cultural factors such as shame and stigma may also prevent women and girls from seeking justice against sexual violence. The experience of sexual violence may also lead to ostracism from the family and/or community, threats of divorce by the husbands, including separation from their children or even to ‘honour’ killings carried out by family members, particularly in more conservative areas. For unmarried women and girls, the prospects of a future marriage can also be ruined. Sources note the lack of services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and the few opportunities to overcome the stigma and alienation, which exacerbate the situation of victims of sexual violence. Abortion is illegal under the Syrian Penal code, which places women and girls who have become pregnant as a result of rape in ‘an unenviable situation’. Under particular circumstances the penalties stated in the law might be reduced, for example if abortion is ‘performed by the woman to save her honour or another person performs the abortion to save the honour of a descendant or a relative to the second degree’ [Situation of women, 1.1.4].

Domestic violence is common in Syria and often normalised and ingrained in culture and/or in social norms. Family violence is often closely linked with domestic violence, with violence perpetrated by other family members, such as in-laws and in particular the husband’s brothers. The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence and stipulates that ‘men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom’. Spousal rape is excluded as a punishable offence under the legal definition of rape. Due to the conflict, an increasing number of women have been forced to work outside the house and to contribute to the family’s income. This change of traditional gender roles might have contributed to an increase of domestic violence and marital rape, with men perceiving the change in family dynamics as a threat. It is reported that a limited number of shelters and services for survivors of domestic violence operated in Syria. Those were available only in Damascus and might no longer be in operation due to the conflict [Situation of women, 1.1.3].

Sexual and gender-based violence has been a persistent issue since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. Multiple forms of sexual and gender-based violence were documented in every Syrian governorate and women have been targeted by GoS forces as well as by members of other armed factions, including non-State armed groups. However, it is reported that the use of sexual violence has been considerably more common among GoS forces and associated pro-government armed groups and that the GoS has used sexual violence as a ‘strategic weapon of war’. GoS forces and pro-government militias have carried out multiple acts of sexual violence, including during abductions in the context of ground operations, house raids, at checkpoints, and during arrest and detention [Situation of women, 1.1.2].

In the so-called Idlib enclave, vulnerable groups such as women bear the brunt of the ongoing hostilities. The jihadist coalition HTS has been responsible for the repressive social norms and policies against female residents of the enclave, resulting in further violations including executions, corporal punishments, restrictions of freedom of movement, of dress, on work, education and on access to healthcare. Cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence targeting women perpetrated by members of non-State armed groups have also been documented, reportedly connected to social phenomena such as exploitation, sectarianism and revenge. It is reported that abduction for the purposes of sexual violence is one of the main forms of sexual violence. Rape is also associated with the harmful traditional practices of forced marriage and ‘honour’ killings (see 2.12.3. Forced and child marriage and 2.12.4. Women perceived to have violated family honour) [Situation of women, 2.1].

The most prominent types of sexual violence among the SDF included harassment during searches and verbal sexual violence. Members of the SDF have also committed acts of sexual violence within the detention centres and camps managed and administered by them. Moreover, it has been reported that individuals in the Al Hol camp, in particular women and children, have suffered discrimination, including harassment, denial of healthcare, restricted movement due to security considerations, and looting at the hands of SDF forces, due to their familial links to ISIL. Insecurity and violence in the camp were reported to increase, with ISIL sympathisers inside the camp having established a female morality police to ‘monitor adherence to dress codes and enforce punishments on women perceived to be “infidels”’. Instances of assassinations of women inside the camp and stabbing of at least one SDF guard were reported in September 2019 [Situation of women, 2.2, Security 2020,].

In areas controlled by Turkey-backed armed groups, the situation of women is defined by similar types of social and cultural factors as those in other parts of Syria. Moreover, in those areas dominated by extremist groups, women have been affected by the imposition of strict dress codes and restrictions of their freedom of movement. Other violations by armed groups such as harassment, especially at checkpoints, and abductions for ransom have also been reported [Situation of women, 2.3].

In areas formerly under the influence of ISIL, no new cases of arrests or abductions carried out by ISIL have been reported in 2019, but it was stated that most women and girls abducted and sexually enslaved by ISIL were forcibly disappeared after the terrorist organisation's downfall [Situation of women, 2.3].

Risk analysis

Acts of violence against women and girls could be of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution (sexual assault, abduction, forced disappearance, killing).

Not all women and girls face the level of risk required to establish well-founded fear of persecution in relation to these forms of violence. The individual assessment of whether or not there is a reasonable degree of likelihood for the applicant to face persecution should take into account risk-impacting circumstances, such as: perception of traditional gender roles in the family, poor socio-economic situation, social status (the risk of sexual and gender-based violence against women and adolescent girls is higher for those without a male protector, such as widows, divorced or separated women, displaced women and girls, women and girls with disabilities, female heads of households), area of origin or residence (e.g. in relation to presence of extremist groups), lack of documentation (e.g. death certificates of husbands), etc.

Nexus to a reason for persecution

Available information indicates that violence against women may be for reasons of (imputed) political opinion (e.g. in case of perceived link to an anti-government armed group), religion (e.g. when persecution is by extremist groups), and/or membership of a particular social group (see examples below).

See other topics concerning women:

2.12.1. Violence against women and girls: overview