The ongoing conflict in Syria has wrecked the lives of many innocent people. So far, the best efforts of the United States and our allies have been ineffective in ending it. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s repressive and bloody dictator, is losing, but it is clear he retains the military capacity to keep the fighting going for some time. While the U.S. works with the United Nations to transition away from the Assad regime, we must do all that we can to assist those who have suffered and are suffering.
In a study issued last summer, the organization Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of sexual assault by the Assad regime against people considered opposition activists. These cases took place in a variety of cities over a year, and indicate that the regime and its gangs may be using sexual violence in a systematic way to demoralize and defeat their opponents.
Syrians who have fled this situation, like refugees all over the world, face difficulties that disproportionally affect women.
The Obama administration is concerned with the plight of refugees, especially women and girls, who have fled the conflict and are struggling to survive in nearby countries.
Those that make their way to camps in Turkey and Jordan confront unsafe conditions and group housing that offers little privacy. Outside of the camps – where the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees settle – refugees are struggling to pay for housing, food and other basic needs. Their inability to earn enough to pay rent and buy necessities is increasingly leading to early or forced marriages, survival sex and child labor. Domestic violence in these overcrowded locations is common.
Joined by a number of my Democratic colleagues, I wrote to Secretary Hillary Clinton last week calling on the State Department to push our allies, the United Nations, and other international organizations to do more for these women and girls. While the United States has steadily increased its contributions to provide services to the victims of gender-based violence, sometimes broader needs overwhelm relief agencies and they fail to adequately care for these women. We cannot allow that to happen, and our letter asks the Secretary to make sure U.S. funding gets to the women and girls who need it.
Specifically, we asked the Secretary to:
• Conduct a time-sensitive study to collect data on women in refugee camps and non-camp settings;
• Pressure host governments to ease refugee registration and provide free health services for women and girls; and
• Partner with humanitarian organizations to prevent trafficking and forced marriages.
The requests listed above are achievable and can mean the difference between life and death to those who have fled persecution by their government.
While we struggle to bring an end to this horrific conflict, we can and should do more to help its victims. I will continue to work with the Obama administration to ensure these steps are taken. In my capacity as a lawmaker, I plan to introduce legislation strengthening humanitarian aid to innocent Syrians caught in the violence early next year.