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A Syrian woman adds a float to a fishing net, as part of a project to help refugees earn an income in Lebanon.
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Girls & Women

Aid Agencies Are Tackling Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in Syria

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid agencies in Syria are joining forces to tackle sexual abuse of people in need, the United Nations said on Tuesday, amid reports of women in the war-torn nation being sexually exploited by men delivering aid for its agencies and major charities.

Leading aid groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were concerned about possible cases of men in southern Syria demanding sexual favours from women in exchange for assistance.

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The U.N. children's fund (UNICEF) and CARE International were among agencies that said they received reports of abuse in 2015 involving men from local councils or militias giving aid.

Aid workers told the BBC that exploitation in southern Syria remains so widespread that some women refuse to accept aid as people may assume that they had offered sex in return.

"We are very concerned ... such behaviour would be a betrayal of the people we are all here to serve," a spokeswoman for the ICRC said.

The aid sector has been rocked by reports that Oxfam staff paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake, with the fallout piling pressure on charities to overhaul their approach to dealing with cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

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UNICEF said a network of aid groups and U.N. agencies will this year roll out a country-wide strategy in Syria to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation.

The project will include a community-based system for making complaints, and more training for partners, according to UNICEF.

"Sexual exploitation and abuse in conflict situations, including Syria, is a serious risk," a UNICEF spokeswoman said.

"Displacement, despair and destitution leave women and children particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including at the hands of those who are supposed to help them, though cases are often underreported," she said in a statement.

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UNICEF said it reviewed its local partners and contractors after the reports came to light, and that it was not aware of any allegations of sexual exploitation against them currently.

CARE said in a statement that its staff had no role in the alleged cases of sexual exploitation in Syria in 2015, and that it had shared the allegations with other aid groups at the time.

Syria's civil war will soon enter its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of the pre-war population of about 23 million from their homes.

SECTOR-WIDE SCANDAL

An exclusive survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last week found more than 120 staff from major global charities were fired or lost their jobs in 2017 over sexual misconduct.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement by women against sexual harassment and abuse, 21 global charities were asked to disclose sexual harassment and abuse by staff and any job losses, with some quick to give figures while others needed several prompts.

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Save the Children and Oxfam gave figures in November. Others such as ActionAid, Plan International and the ICRC provided data last week, while the International Rescue Committee (IRC) sent numbers on Tuesday as they raced to meet a government deadline.

The IRC said it had nine cases of sexual harassment and nine cases of sexual abuse or exploitation in 2017. The charity took disciplinary action in each instance, with most offenders fired.

Of the charities surveyed, Islamic Relief and Action Against Hunger did not provide numbers, while Compassion International, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis said they had received no reports of serious violations last year.

Britain's aid minister said on Monday the "grotesque" sex abuse scandal was a "wake up call" for aid agencies, and warned the government would not fund those that failed to respond.

(Reporting By Heba Kanso, Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)