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Syria's Women, Many Raped In Refugee Centres, Long To Return Home

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Many Syrian women would rather return to their war-torn homeland than endure the violence, rape and other sexual assaults they are experiencing as refugees, a humanitarian charity has said.

More than 50% of women seeking aid from Caritas Lebanon, the partner agency of Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf), have told social workers they have been sexually abused.

Caritas Lebanon and Sciaf are members of the confederation of 165 Catholic organisations Caritas Internationalis, making up one of the world's largest humanitarian aid networks.

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Many Syrian women would rather return to their war-torn homeland than face the violence, rape and sexual assault they are experiencing as refugees

Najla Chahda, director of Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, said that as cases of sexual gender-based violence are discovered by her staff during home visits, similarities in the women's stories emerge.

"During discussions they reported that they are not happy. They want change, to go back home," she said.

"When we ask them why, when there is a war in Syria, they say, 'we were living easily ... Even though it was difficult, we were well treated. Our husbands were not so aggressive. There were always opportunities for us to express ourselves, to share with our neighbours and families in our environment'."

Other aid organisations in Lebanon also recognise the urgent need to tackle sexual violence.

Last month joint research on the problem was published by Oxfam and Abaad - Resource Centre for Gender Equality, based on information from Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Their findings match much of what Caritas Lebanon staff have discovered.

Chahda said living conditions, the lack of support and resources as well as women's changing role from domestic to labour all contribute to why women are among the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon.

"This is creating more tension inside the family as the husband, who is usually the breadwinner, is not at all happy. Men are more stressed, frustrated and becoming more violent with the women," says Mrs Chahda.

Fatme Mchawrab is a senior social worker with Caritas in the city of Saida in south Lebanon and has been supporting a 37-year-old woman who was raped by her 60-year-old father-in-law.

The woman entered Lebanon with her husband illegally and when he was arrested for forged papers she and her three children went to stay with the father-in-law.

Mchawrab said the woman was afraid to speak out at first.

"He threatened her saying, 'if you refuse this, or talk about this, I will take the children and throw you away'," Mrs Mchawrab said.

Caritas Lebanon is providing psychological therapy for the woman and has told her where she can get help to become legally registered and avoid deportation.

The charity plans to open a second shelter to help victims of sexual violence, the first dedicated to helping refugees from Syria.

Meanwhile in Jordan where at least 500,000 Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency), rape and abuse of women is ignored.

One aid worker, who did not want to be identified, said: "The Jordanian government says this issue does not exist here. We know it happens but it is not in our culture, in the Arab culture, to talk about these things."

Girls can be married from as young as 12, according to some interpretations of Sharia law, although it is against the law of the Jordanian state to marry under the age of 18.

"It is a kind of legal violence and rape," the aid worker said, who added that many Syrian girls are forced into this so their family no longer has to be responsible for them.

"If she is married with the legal paper, sex becomes a right of the husband. She can't say no to him. We don't know what happens inside the house because it is a shame to talk about your husband and your relationship with him."

Val Morgan from Sciaf said: "Many Syrian women and young girls now fleeing the war are alone, isolated and more vulnerable to attack than ever.

"Whilst Sciaf and our Caritas partners are providing support in this area, every effort should be made by all agencies on the ground to provide secure environments for women and appropriate help for those who have been attacked or domestically abused."

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said she was concerned about the women's plight. In a statement, she added: "The UK is at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict.

"This includes ensuring vulnerable girls and women in refugee camps have safe access to facilities such as toilets and washing areas. We are also helping tens of thousands of survivors of sexual violence across the region with clinical care and case management, mental health services and financial support.

"We are pushing other donors to step up and to co-ordinate their support for refugees, but the terrible experiences of these women just underlines the need to find a political solution to bring this conflict to an end."

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