U.N. uses contraceptives to counter sexual violence in Syria

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Women and girls fleeing from the violence in Syria and heading to neighboring countries are being provided with contraceptives to counter sexual violence, Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told Al Arabiya English on Thursday.

“We’ve stayed on the ground in Syria, we’re powerfully on the ground in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, to ensure that wherever Syrians – women, children and families – are fleeing from the conflict... they’re received with contraceptives that are available,” she said.

Contraceptive measures are the “essential” answer to the threat of sexual violence against women, Gilmore said, adding that sexual violence is being used as a “weapon of war” against women in conflict zones such as Syria.

In January, the New York-based International Rescue Committee said Syrian refugees interviewed in Lebanon and Jordan cited sexual violence as a primary reason for their flight, with gang rapes often occurring in front of family members.

“After decades of working in war and disaster zones, the IRC knows that women and girls suffer physical and sexual violence in every conflict. Syria is no exception," the Committee said in a 23-page report entitled “Syria: a regional crisis.”

It added: “Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men.”

The UNFPA’s methods for dealing with the spate of sexual violence are “inadequate,” but they are making concerted efforts to “provide opportunities for [women] to disclose their experience of sexual violence,” said Gilmore.

An additional measure aimed at helping women victimized by violence is the establishment of refugee camps along Syria’s borders, “where people can get to those camps as quickly as possible… to minimize the period of time during which women are vulnerable.”

However, the involved parties must take responsibility, added Gilmore. “International standards on this are absolutely clear – every government and every opposition force is accountable under international law to prevent the use of sexualized violence as a weapon.”

Spurring change

Leadership is key to making a lasting change, said Gilmore.

“When we don’t provide health services [to women] on the ground… whether it is in peace or conflict, it’s always because of an absence of political will,” she said.

When governments are committed to ensuring women’s wellbeing and health, “the answers are available through providing skilled workers, commodities – meaning lifesaving medicines – and adequate facilities.”

The governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are making great strides in this regard, but “there’s always more to be done,” Gilmore added.
She emphasized the role of men in standing up for women’s rights.

“There’s a very particular role that men and boys have, which is to stand up publically for the rights of women to live in dignity in regard to their sexual and reproductive health.”

After all, “men are already involved. There has yet to be a pregnancy without a man being involved. There hasn’t yet been a rape of a woman, in the setting of conflict, without a man being involved, which means there are immediate things that men can do.”

They “can be loyal to the right of a woman to say no,” said Gilmore, insisting that men should empower women and seek their consent in any matter pertaining to their health.

The UNFPA has come across challenges in the past, specifically regarding religious fundamentalists, said Gilmore.

They are difficult to deal with because “fundamentalism means a rigid, absolutist position on ideas and constructs about how other people should live their lives.”

However, human rights are universal, and are rooted in every creed and tradition, including Islam and Christianity, she added.

“At the heart of it, nobody has the right to impose upon another person suffering without redress, and if you’re forced to be pregnant at an age where you’re ill-prepared, physically and emotionally, that’s a human rights abuse.”

Child brides

Gilmore gave a speech at the Women Deliver 2013 conference in Malaysia on young girls’ forced marriages to older men.

United Nations statistics show that this is prevalent, and that one in nine girls in developing countries will be forced into marriage by the age of 15.

If nothing is done about this by 2020, an estimated 14.2 million girls a year will become child brides, according to the United Nations.

“We know that if a young woman is forced against her will into sexual congress under the age of 15, her probability of either being physically irreparably damaged by pregnancy, or dying from pregnancy, is extraordinarily and unacceptably high,” Gilmore said.

“So we at the UNFPA are working, with parents and the local community, to keep young women at school, to make sure they’re put on the path of a viable livelihood.”