DERAA, Syria – “They treat me like an animal. But then that is what I have become.” These are the words of 16-year-old Ishtar, a refugee of the Syrian civil war living in Lebanon. She, her mother and her sister fled the violence in their hometown of Homs when her father was killed in an airstrike. Penniless and desperate, Ishtar has succumbed to the aggressive sexual harassment on the streets of Beirut and turned to sex to survive.
Paid $20 or $30 after rough encounters in abandoned buildings or cars, Ishtar is engaging in survival sex.
Survival sex is sex work borne of extreme need and is utilized to secure food, shelter, protection or money. Separate from prostitution, it is “neither voluntary nor equal.” As defined by Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Democratic Republic of Congo expert on sexual violence, “survival sex is one in which women have no choice, where they believe that the only way they are going to make any money, where they’ll be able to keep their job or get a job, is through engaging in sex or in relationships with individuals. It is by no means a relationship of equals.”
Common in war zones and refugee areas where women are inherently more vulnerable, this form of sexual violence exists all around the world.
Over 25 years of war in Sri Lanka’s north has created a landscape with conditions ripe for desperate acts. Violence in the north has created more than 59,000 women-headed households. With their husbands dead or missing, these women are left the primary breadwinners for families. Vishaka Dharmadasa, head of the NGO Association of War Affected Women reports that women “are under immense pressure to provide for families in homes where men are either dead or reported missing. It has made a sizeable percentage of women to reluctantly turn to sex work.”
Similarly, refugees of the violence from insurgent groups in Mali’s north face desperate economic realities and few solutions. According to an aid worker in the Malian city of Bamako, “displaced women in Bamako who engage in survival sex will often have multiple clients to be able to pay for their rent, food, and clothes.” Even worse, it’s not just adult women who are driven into the practice but young girls as well — some at the pressure of their own families.
Upsettingly, foreign NGO workers and peacekeepers also take advantage of women’s vulnerability. Maryam, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of five reported living in fear since fleeing her country’s violence to Lebanon. Not only does she face nonstop verbal harassment and groping on the street, but even aid workers are seeking to take advantage of her: “One of the men at an NGO told her that if you accept to sleep with me, if we can have sexual relations, every time I have any kind of access to assistance, it will be yours. It will have your name on it.”
Women from the Democratic Republic of Congo report similar experiences in the documentary film “To Serve With Pride,” which documents exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers and other aid workers. One woman in a camp recounts: “We have needs in the refugee center, and when we have insufficient relief supplies or other facilities to fulfill these needs, if someone tries to tempt us into exchanging something, then we have to agree.”
As captured by narrator of the film, “where there is desperation, buying sex is cheap and easy.”
– Kelley Calkins
Sources: Women Under Siege, Women in the World, Ms., Asia Sentinel, United Nations Fopulation Fund, The Hill