Supporting survivors of gender-based violence in war-ravaged Syria

<p>Syrian women participate in a session on gender-based violence and reproductive health issues at the Al-Shagour centre in Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic. <i>Photo credit: UNFPA Syria / Hamada Smesem</i> </p>
  • 26 June 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria – As a new mother, Wardeh’s life should have been filled with hope and anticipation. But like many young women in war-ravaged Syria, her life has become a daily struggle.

Wardeh,* 24, is one of an estimated 54,000 Syrian women who have been put at greater risk of suffering from gender-based violence, including rape, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Wardeh became dependent on her extended family after her husband left to fight in the ongoing civil war. Because she had nowhere else to turn, she did not complain when her mother-in-law locked her in the house and forbade her to visit other family members and friends.

But things took a turn for the worse when her brother-in-law began pressuring her to have sex with him. She wanted to speak out about the sexual harassment, but she also understood the risks involved in doing so.

“My mother-in-law would have turned my life into hell on earth and would have taken my baby away from me,” Wardeh explains. “I simply couldn’t bear this.”

Then one day, Wardeh happened to watch a television programme that featured a UNFPA-supported centre for women in the Al-Shagour neighborhood of Damascus, close to her home. The description of the services available at the centre, including reproductive health care and counselling, encouraged her to drop in.

A life-changing decision

Wardeh believes that her visit to the Al-Shagour clinic turned her life around.

She originally visited the centre about difficulties she was having breastfeeding. But the staff’s general attitude gradually encouraged her to open up more.

As trust was built, she told them that she had thought about committing suicide to put an end to her miserable life, Wardeh recalls. The staff listened and helped, explaining how the stress and depression that she was feeling were affecting her physical and psychological health.

Over the course of the next three months, Wardeh continued to receive medical care and psychosocial support from the centre. She was also able to get advice on how to stay safe, and to discuss her options and the potential consequences of her decisions.

At first, Wardeh decided to talk about the harassment with her mother-in-law and her husband upon his return. Unfortunately, neither was sympathetic to her situation. But the centre staff continued to follow up on her case and counselled her on how to face these challenges with hope and resilience.

Today, Wardeh feels supported. She still lives with her husband and her baby, but is in regular contact with the centre. With its support, she developed a safety plan and enrolled in a free public university to improve her future prospects.

“I want a life for myself and my child, a life in which we both are strong and healthy. I know with the university certificate and the support from the centre I can deal with anything and anyone that comes my way,” Wardeh said, smiling.

Al-Shagour is one of three centres run through a partnership between UNFPA and the Syrian Family Planning Association (SFPA) in Damascus. The clinic provides holistic services and support to survivors of gender-based violence.

* The name has been changed to protect her identity

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