September 12, 2007
On a dry, hot summer night in Jeremana, a run-down suburb of Damascus, clusters of pedestrians stroll down the dusty sidewalks. Most of the area residents are recently arrived Iraqi refugees. Abundant are the GMC trucks that bring them to Syria. Abundant, too, is a stream of cars with plates from neighboring Gulf states, some of which head down a side street towards a nightclub. Here, young prostitutes dance seductively under disco lights, hoping to attract business. Most young dancers are Iraqi refugees.
Child prostitution is an increasingly widespread phenomenon in Damascus. Out of economic desperation, Iraqi refugee women and girls are forced into these roles. Frequently, women who have lost their husbands or girls who have lost their fathers resort to prostitution to support their families. And sometimes families that have no other financial resources sell their daughters into the sex industry. It is a tragic and horrifying reality.
There are no official figures as to how many of the Iraqi refugees work as prostitutes. But Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, told The Independent that she puts the figure at 50,000. No one knows how many of the prostitutes are children.
As child prostitution has increased, a number of Syrian nonprofit organizations have taken on the issue. One such group is the Association for Women’s Role Development, which works with other NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and UNICEF. The organization helps girls under the age of 18 who have been charged with prostitution and imprisoned.
Together with the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs, the Association provides healthcare services to the girls. They organize a weekly visit to a clinic where they are tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The organization provides equal services to these girls regardless of their country of origin.
Additionally, the organization works to educate girls about their rights within their family. This education is vital for two reasons, says board member Youmn Abou Alhosn. "Sometimes the family of the girl does not know that she works in the sex industry," Mrs. Alhosn explains. "The family is still in Iraq, and the girl is sending back remittances. In this case, if her family finds out about her work, the girl might run the risk of an honor killing."
Conversely, some families sell their daughters into the sex trade without the girls knowing where they may be headed. Mrs. Alhosn says: "One girl was sold to an Iraqi woman in Syria by her father in Baghdad. He promised he’d be back in a week. It’s been five years, and he’s never returned."
The Syrian government is also currently working with the International Organization on Migration to draft legislation that would outlaw trafficking in migrants in Syria. According to the IOM, there have been reports of Iraqi women being trafficked into Syria and forced into sex work by Iraqi criminal networks. Since there are currently no laws on the books, Syrians have no means with which to prosecute traffickers. The legislation would also establish government agencies to investigate and prosecute traffickers. It would be the first law of its kind in the Middle East.