By Zoe Tabary
WASHINGTON, March 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Millions of Syrian women who have fled the eight-year war are stuck in a "legal limbo," unable to own or reclaim land when they go home, driving some to marry off their underage daughters to acquire property, researchers said on Thursday.
Swathes of Syrian towns and cities have been destroyed — displacing about half of the pre-war 22 million population — along with land and civil registries, making it difficult for those who have lost, or never had, documents to get them.
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Women are hardest hit as they often depend on men, whose names were typically on land documents and may have died or disappeared, experts told a World Bank conference this week.
"Women in Syria already deal with a discriminatory legal framework, with Sharia law for example only giving them half of men's share of land in case of inheritance," said Laura Cunial, a legal expert at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
"Now they are even worse off. Most land has been destroyed ... and what little is left to claim is largely out of women's reach as they cannot provide the necessary documents to get property titles."
This is fuelling child marriage, as many women are "desperate to marry their daughters to landowners so they have a roof over their head," Cunial said.
Only 4% of female refugees surveyed by NRC in Jordan and Lebanon had property in Syria registered in their name.
Even before the war, property was often owned customarily and many urban residents lived in informal settlements. With millions displaced multiple times, land disputes are common.
Many Syrians fled without crucial paperwork or had it confiscated at checkpoints. About 75% of Syrian refugee families surveyed in Jordan by NRC said they used to have property documents, but only 20% still had them.
Only 2% of displaced women in southern Syria hold passports, compared with 21% of men, Cunial said.
"Dealing with land laws and regulation used to be men's job, but now most of them have gone," she said at the Washington DC conference.
"That traps women in a legal limbo, and leaves them unable to inherit or sell property," said Cunial, who works to provide legal assistance to displaced Syrian women.
One solution, said Paul Prettitore of the World Bank, is to compile data on land use, including satellite imagery, social media, online forums and court records to assess forced displacement, destruction of property and fraudulent transfers.
"That would tell governments and civil society where they are most needed, and help target interventions to protect land rights," said Prettitore, who works on policy and legal issues.
Syrians are likely to file more than 2 million lawsuits seeking restitution for lost and damaged property, NRC says. (Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)