28/06/2013 13:28 BST | Updated 28/08/2013 06:12 BST

The UK Must Act Now to Protect Syria's Children From Sexual Violence


After a year of shelling, bombing and fighting around his city, a father decides to take his family out of Syria because he has heard that Syrian army forces are routinely raping girls and women in villages they win back from opposition forces. To protect his three daughters he sneaks his family through the frontline and crosses the border, arriving at a refugee camp in Jordan - a 'safe haven' where, on their first evening, his teenage daughter is violently raped by several men on her way back from the camp toilets.

War Child met this family last week, three months after they fled from Syria. And three months since his daughter started missing her periods. But, despite this indicator of possible pregnancy, his daughter had not sought medical attention. To go to a doctor for a pregnancy test or antenatal care would be to announce to the world that an unmarried girl is pregnant. Which would place the girl in even greater danger. The honour system in this part of the Middle East requires a father to kill a daughter who gives birth out of wedlock, in order to cleanse his family of the dishonour which would otherwise put his entire family at risk of violence and destitution. No wonder this man looked so desperate. He knows that if he does not kill his daughter, another male relative may well do it for him.

The refugee camp we visited is a dangerous and forbidding place, where the rule of law has yet to be established and traumatised refugees fear for their children. It is a breeding ground for sexual violence and rape, of girls and also of boys. Families who know the system keep their children in their tents or caravans after six in the evening. Girls are escorted by the men in the family when they go to use the washrooms and toilets. Sex work is a growing trade in the camp. And there is an increasing pattern of temporary marriage, girls being sold to wealthy men for a week at a time in return for a 'dowry'.

In April this year Angelina Jolie and William Hague announced that the G8 nations had agreed a historic commitment to work together to stop rape and sexual violence in conflict. And last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Williams Hague's Resolution 2106 against sexual violence in conflict. The UK has expended a great deal of diplomatic energy on this issue. And gained considerable prestige for its bravery and determination to deal with a difficult subject. So the UK would naturally be in the forefront of efforts to protect Syrian children, particularly vulnerable children, from rape and sexual abuse.

The problem is that we found no evidence of any activities, determined or otherwise, to stop rape in Zaatari camp. No rape prevention campaigns, no services for rape survivors, no security measures to provide extra protection. Despite the good intentions at the highest level of G8 nations, even the UK government has failed to earmark any of its humanitarian funding to the Syrian crisis specifically for protection from sexual violence.

There is clearly potential for extreme embarrassment in Whitehall and other G8 nations should anyone ask why the diplomatic activity on sexual violence has delivered so little practical or useful action on the ground. But rather than dwelling on this point, I would make another suggestion. This outbreak of sexual violence presents the UK with an opportunity to live up to its rhetoric by funding effective action to reduce sexual violence in the Syrian refugee camps, and care for those who have been attacked and raped already. When we hand over our humanitarian funds to the UN appeal for Syrian refugees, we need to insist that part of this money is spent on reducing rape and sexual violence.

If we do this now, we show real leadership on this issue, and save thousands of children from rape and its consequences. And if we don't? Our G8 declaration falls at the first fence, our fine words ring hollow, and we leave children unprotected in the most dangerous refugee camp in the world.