Target: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Goal: Protect female Syrian refugees from sexual assault and forced marriages.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry should demand that Syrian young women are offered safe living conditions in refugee camps so that they are not sexually assaulted or forced into marriage by their families. Having to deal with sexual violence from random men, they must also put up with the attempts of their families to force them into marriage as a way of protecting them. In the Zaatari refugee camp of Jordan, the young female population is in grave danger of sexual mistreatment. While some women were raped during the nighttime by gangs of young men, others have had to deal with pervasive forms of sexual harassment during the daytime such as being groped or called lewd names as they stood in line for food or used the bathroom facilities.
As a result of the threats that they have to face on a daily basis, these girls are often pressured by their families to marry men who promise to help them escape the poverty and violence of the refugee camp life and move to stable homes. One mother says, “Isn’t it better that they are married, that she is protected by her husband? I am marrying off my daughters as quickly as I can.”
The Zaatari camp located in northern Jordan houses about 150,000 refugees. Men from the Gulf States have decided to capitalize on the desperate situation of the women residing in the camp by offering their families the promise of a better life for their daughters. Even though camp residents can’t always benefit from an adequate supply of water, electricity, and housing, a bridal boutique has sprung up which rents fancy dresses for the frequent wedding ceremonies between rich outsiders and the young girls who marry them. Families reluctant to accept the suitors’ proposals acquiesce because they know that their daughters would be safer in a home with a husband than in a camp where they not only live in poverty, but are also exposed to the risk of sexual assault.
It is astounding to learn that the average age of the brides is fifteen. We are talking about teenage girls who have not yet reached full adulthood; they should not be pressured to hastily enter into marriage in the formative years of their youth because they deserve the time to mature and make their own decisions. In order for these girls to enjoy the freedom of living their lives as they see fit and choosing who or when to marry based on their own personal preferences, they and their families shouldn’t be burdened by the constant threat of random sexual violence. Thus, the U.S. State Department and John Kerry should pursue the goal of creating safe conditions for the Syrian women living in refugee camps; among other solutions, they should be offered the option of moving to special segregated quarters where they could be protected from men who might potentially harm them.
In a time where the brutality in war-torn Syria has reached unprecedented proportions, our focus on the war victims may make us inadvertently neglect the suffering of those who have fled the field of battle and supposedly find themselves on safer ground. But the young women who live in precarious conditions in camps deserve to have their rights protected too. No emergency situation justifies that they be preyed upon by lecherous men or denied the freedom to decide whether or not to marry. It may be tempting to see the exploitation of these women as a minor matter in a war where so much blood has been spilled. But physical violence should never make us forget sexual violence. By signing this petition, you will remind John Kerry and the State Department that the U.S. and the world community has to remain vigilant and guard against the abuse of women’s rights even in the extreme circumstances of war.
Dear John Kerry,
In accordance with its long-standing commitment to women’s rights, the U.S. must demand that Syrian young women in refugee camps are provided with living conditions safe from the threat of sexual violence and the pressure of entering into marriage against their will.
There is no better way for America to demonstrate its solidarity with the Syrian people than by commiserating with the overlooked victims of the war—the young women who fled their homes and must now fear for their safety in refugee camps where sexually aggressive males are on the prowl, or potentially give up their freedom as they are forced into marriages supposedly intended to secure them a measure of safety they cannot find in their current living situation.
By advocating for the female victims of the Syrian refugee crisis, the United States will prove itself a leader in humanitarian outreach. This may after all be our country’s best way of winning the trust of the Middle East community and securing allies in a region where we sorely need them.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Rene Wildangel of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Ramallah via Flickr