Women affected by the Syrian conflict have been sexually exploited in return for aid by men working on behalf of the UN and international charities, according to reports.
Aid workers operating in the area said the men would ask for sexual favours in return for food and lifts, and that some women were avoiding collecting aid altogether because people would assume they had received it in exchange for offering up their bodies, the BBC reported.
The abuse is often carried out by third parties and local officials who have access to dangerous and remote parts of Syria that humanitarian agencies do not. Agencies and charities are therefore more likely to overlook the allegations because they cannot access the areas themselves.
Humanitarian adviser Danielle Spencer said she first heard women from Syria make allegations of sexual exploitation in return for aid in a refugee camp in Jordan in March 2015, and yet it continues. She told the BBC she had seen men "withholding aid that had been delivered and then using these women for sex".
"It was so endemic that they couldn't actually go without being stigmatised," she continued. "It was assumed that if you go to these distributions, that you will have performed some kind of sexual act in return for aid."
A new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on gender-based violence in the country also concluded that aid distributions are not received for free most of the time. In focus group discussions with women in Syria, the report said: "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’."
Those most at risk of being abused are "women and girls ‘without male protectors’, such as widows and divorcees as well as female IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons)," it concluded.
Allegations were also reported by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in June 2015, which said the practice was "widespread", with about 40% of the women and girls it surveyed in Syria saying they had experienced sexual violence when they were accessing services and aid.
UN agencies and international charities reportedly met to discuss the issue in July 2015, with many organisations, including the IRC and the charity Care, altering their procedures to better protect women and girls as a result. Despite all this, the abuse has carried on and aid workers say it has been going on for potentially far longer.
Spencer said "sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls has been ignored" and known about for seven years. "The UN and the system as it currently stands have chosen for women's bodies to be sacrificed," she told the BBC. "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."
UN agencies and charities including Oxfam and Unicef said they have zero tolerance policies on such abuse and were not currently aware of allegations against them in the region.
Meanwhile, the Department for International Development said it was not aware of any sexual abuse cases involving UK aid and that there were "mechanisms already in place to raise issues of abuse and exploitation". Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also said the government was "committed to a zero tolerance approach" and does not support agencies involved in such activities.
Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International, said the human rights organisation was "deeply alarmed by the report that individuals distributing humanitarian assistance in Syria are sexually exploiting women and girls in desperate need of aid".
She told Refinery29: "The allegation that the UN has known about these serious abuses for several years is particularly troubling. The UN and other humanitarian agencies must take effective measures to prevent sexual exploitation and other abuses of aid recipients without delay."
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