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The crisis in Syria which started in 2011 has seen one of the world’s largest human rights violations. With the United Nations Security Council lacking any form of unity, the Syrian conflict spiralled out of control of the international community. Today there are around 4,597,536 registered Syrian refugees, while thousands are still unregistered. Human rights violations and abuse occur in the context of widespread insecurity and disregard for the standards of international law and international humanitarian law (IHL). The crisis is characterized by the current absence of effective protection for a significant number of civilians. As the conflict in Syria continues, there has emerged an equally alarming global problem, the crisis of refugees. The Syrian neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey are faced with this dilemma of whether to give in to the Humanitarian need of the hour and take in these refugees or to turn a cold shoulder to them keeping in view the welfare of their own citizens and a lack of resources.

In this scenario, what continues to go mostly unreported and unaddressed is the plight of Syrian women and girls affected by this conflict. Women refugees of Syria are faced with a myriad of difficulties, ranging from early and forced marriage, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), rape, and family crisis to regular verbal harassment from the citizens of their host countries.

International law is an imperfect framework for regulating the international movement of persons because it has developed in a piece-meal fashion over a long time to deal with issues of concern at particular points in human history. However, it still plays the most important role in channelling the movement of refugees from Syria. As International Human Rights law lacks a binding force, the effect of the conventions on Human Rights is negligible in addressing the issues faced by Syrian refugee women. The international community has tried, through the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), IOM and various non-governmental organisations to assist these women most of whom are suddenly entrusted with the responsibilities of heading their families though living their entire lives dependent on their male family members. However, in the absence of a legal framework which is comprehensive and binding, these women continue to face serious threats to their existence and well-being.

The plight of the refugee women of Syria mostly goes unreported amongst the news of the conflict in Syria although this aspect has grave implications on the entire humanity. Many women have been subject to sexual and gender based violence, coerced into early marriage, overwhelmed by economic strife, and psychologically scarred by loss in a war that seemingly has no end.

Sexual and Gender based Violence: Gender based violence is defined by CEDAW as violence that is directed at a person on the basis of gender or sex. According to the United Nations High commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), acts of sexual and gender based violence violate a number of human rights principles enshrined in international human rights instruments. Among others, these include: The right to life, liberty and security of the person, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to freedom of movement, opinion, expression, and association, the right to enter into marriage with free and full consent and the entitlement to equal rights to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution, the right to education, social security and personal development and the right to cultural, political and public participation, equal access to public services, work and equal pay for equal work.

There is no quantitative data in respect to violence against women but many displaced Syrian women and girls report having experienced violence, in particular rape. A rapid assessment conducted in 2012 by the International Rescue Committee in collaboration with ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality assessed the vulnerabilities of Syrian women and girls to increased exposure to GBV both prior to crossing the borders and in their new host communities, and concluded the following:

  • Rape and sexual violence were identified by focus groups and key informants alike as the most extensive form of violence faced by women and girls while in Syria.

  • Intimate partner violence (IPV), early marriage and survival sex were identified by adult women and adolescent girls as other forms of violence experienced since arriving in Lebanon. Adult female participants in several focus groups reported that IPV has increased since their arrival in Lebanon, while adolescent girls stated that early marriages have increased, most frequently framed as efforts by families to ‘protect’ girls from being raped or to ensure that they are ‘under the protection of a man’. Survival sex, typically linked to women’s and girls’ desperate need to earn money to cover the cost of living since arriving in Lebanon, was also identified as a type of violence frequently experienced by Syrian women and girls.

  • Many newly arrived women and girls are living in unplanned and overcrowded refugee settlements, with minimal privacy and compromised safety, particularly among those refugee populations inhabiting abandoned public buildings.

  • Survivors are reluctant to report SGBV or seek support due to the shame, fear and ‘dishonour’ to their families. Women risk further physical and sexual violence, including death, often from their own families, when reporting GBV, a pattern that exists in many contexts.

  • Minimal coordination and lack of adherence to international standards of humanitarian assistance have hindered women’s and girls’ ability to access services. Discrimination and mistreatment are key barriers to accessing services.

  • Women and girls have restricted access to information about the availability of services and support, particularly those that are relevant to survivors of GBV. Key informants strongly agreed that there are few services currently in place specifically designed to meet the needs of survivors of GBV or that are accessible to Syrian refugees.

Domestic Violence: There has been evidence of the existence of domestic violence in Syria even prior to the conflict. However, domestic violence has been found to be endemic in refugee communities in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, where the stress of displacement, overcrowded housing, and the lack of privacy in tents and apartments has led to increased tensions within the family. As women of Syria continue their fight for survival, they are being targeted as the most vulnerable section within their own families, let alone their host communities. In a report by IRC, many Syrian women agreed that the emotional and physical violence from their male family members have increased since their fleeing from Syria. Some women attributed this “yelling and beating” as their husbands’ way of coping with the stress and trauma of being a refugee.

According to reports from UNHCR, pregnant women are under utilizing prenatal and ante-natal care, likely due to the cost of care, barriers to accessing transportation, particularly for refugees living in remote locations-cost of transportation, lack of trust of medical professionals, and lack of information regarding where to receive care. The report suggested that the reproductive health care needs of women are largely unmet, often compromising the safety of deliveries and increasing the needs for emergency obstetric care.

Early Marriages: Early marriages have increased among Syrians who have taken asylum in neighbouring countries. Parents of adolescents lack information regarding whether their host countries will recognize their wards’ previous education, which has resulted in discontinuation of education of many girls and has contributed in the rise of early and forced marriages. Although seen as a means of creating security for the adolescent girls, early marriages in fact increase vulnerabilities for these refugee girls. Already faced with problems of displacement and poverty, these girls are further burdened with new responsibilities of marriage, managing household and giving in to the physical and verbal abuses of their husbands. They are also faced with health problems related to adolescent pregnancy. These problems often result in divorces, and women are sent back home. Divorce is considered a scar to the family honour by Syrians, and therefore this may further result in verbal and physical abuses to the woman.

Thus, the Syrian refugee women are faced with a plethora of problems in their host countries and the entire concept of equality of the sexes seems like a far-fetched imagination in this scenario. Their situation demands an urgent attention of the International community regarding the promotion of gender equality and preservation of the basic human rights.

The 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees defines refugees as, “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..” The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) has recognized this definition and through several articles, it guarantees protection to the refugees. Article 14 of the said declaration states that, "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Moreover, Articles 1 (Right to Equality), 2 (Freedom from Discrimination), Article 3 (Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security; Article 5 (Freedom from Torture, Degrading Treatment), and Article 9 (Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest, Exile) are some articles in UDHR which guarantee protection to refugees though it may not be explicitly mentioned.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: The UNHCR has played a very important role in the rehabilitation of women refugees and internally displaced during the Syrian crisis. UNHCR also uses targeted actions to address specific protection needs. Programmes to increase girls’ enrolment and retention in school can overcome economic or cultural barriers to their education. The UN refugee agency builds upon women’s resilience and strength to support their empowerment and strengthen their protection, and promotes their full participation in all decisions affecting their lives. Despite the many challenges, displacement can enable women to take on new roles and instigate positive change. UNHCR works on the expectation that with the appropriate support, refugee women can improve their lives and the lives of their children, families and communities.

For the protection of refugees, including women, proper laws are required. The rules of International Law relevant to migration come from a number of formal sources, which are listed in Article 38 of the Statute of ICJ. These are: International conventions, customary international law, general principles of law generally recognized by civilized nations and finally, judicial teachings of law. These sources of law create binding obligations on the states which are parties to it. However, as there is a lack of proper mechanism to implement these, there exists a legal lacuna in the field of International Human Rights Law. International Lawyers have long pointed to state consent as the central basis for the binding nature of International Law. According to this view, for International Law to be binding on a state, the state must be a party to the treaty. This thus implies that as the League of Arab States is not a party to several human rights treaties concerning women, therefore, women refugees from Syria who have sought asylum in these states are excluded from the benefits of many of these treaties.

International Human Rights Law is a broad division of law that encompasses within it the rights of refugees too. Women refugees in Syria face a multitude of problems as they struggle to survive in their host countries. International Human Rights Law can serve as a support for these women in their struggle for survival, provided proper mechanisms are being implanted at the grass-root level for easy access to the women.

Firstly, the host countries need to be incentivized positively so that they are driven to take care of these refugees. If proper international support is not received, these host countries will have to give in to the pressure from locals and they might start being inhospitable to these refugees keeping in view their own lack of resources and economic constraints. Secondly, the individual registration of women refugees in host countries should be made an easy and safe process. Thirdly, gender-based violence must be regarded as a serious issue and attempts should be made at curbing these, at cross-border networks too. Fourthly, there should be safe entry points for survivors of gender-based violence, at all levels and awareness about these should be increased. The women should be made comfortable so that they are able to share their problems without any hesitation. Fifthly, the continuation of education of refugee adolescent girls should be made easy and the parents of such girls must be intimated about the various education opportunities so that they do not give in to the social pressure of early marriages. Sixthly, the health care facilities towards pregnant women must be accelerated and awareness regarding the same need to be created. Seventhly, refugee men should be counselled against the negative image of masculinity that drives them to resort to violence against women.

This article concludes that as international law lacks binding force, implementation of treaties is a problem even with regard to its signatories. Refugee women of Syria need the support, care and concern of the international community today, more than ever before. As they battle to create a decent livelihood for themselves and their families, it can be seen that international human rights law is highly inadequate in addressing their problems. The international community should therefore come up with measures for the strict implementation of human rights norms. There should be unity and comprehensiveness in the efforts put forward by various non-profit organisations and the UN bodies for the effective solving of the problems faced by the women refugees.

Navin Kumar Jaggi

Samikshya Thapa

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