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Sanctions on Syria Strike Women the Hardest

posted on: Jul 6, 2020

By Dr. Lina AbiRafeh/Arab America Contributing Writer

Syria continues to see no end to its protracted crisis, ongoing since 2011, in addition to an economic crisis and a coronavirus lockdown. Under such conditions, women in Syria have borne the brunt of violence and insecurity. And Syrian refugee women in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey face even greater risks. The threat of sanctions will create the perfect storm, compromising women’s safety, and undermining efforts to achieve women’s rights.

The US legislation is known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act, which aims to sanction the Syrian regime, and in particular its president Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. Syria has been sanctioned by the US since 1979. The Caesar Act uses the same coercive methods to compel the government to cease attacks on Syrians, to support a transitional government, and to build a foundation for human rights and the rule of law.

And yet, examples from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, elsewhere, have shown that sanctions often have a negative impact on human rights. Economic sanctions, as a coercive political tool, actively magnify the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups. And, not unlike COVID-19, this means that women will be the hardest hit.

These new sanctions will drive Syrian civilians deeper into poverty, further obstructing economic recovery, and thwarting any hope of peace and stability in the country. While Syria has a long way to go to achieve women’s rights, the Syrian Foreign Ministry has labeled these sanctions “economic terrorism” and a violation of human rights. Women’s already weak socioeconomic and political standing will be further compromised by this blunt political tool.

In Iran, for instance, as a result of sanctions, working women were pushed out of economic life and further relegated to the domestic sphere, jeopardizing gains such as the legal age of marriage and childbearing. Conservatives took advantage of this situation to impose restrictive family laws that deny women’s rights to economic and public life.

In Iraq, sanctions directly contributed to the withdrawal of girls from education in order to be married, as an effort to reduce the economic burden on the family by “offloading” girls. Women’s rights activists argued that these extreme measures present fertile ground for conservative leaders to further limit girls’ education and women’s access to employment, under the guise of increasing male employment.

Syria will be no different.

The Syrian refugee population will also be exacerbated. The United Nations estimates that there are 6.5 million displaced people within Syria itself and 3 million in neighboring countries. Syrian refugee and migrant women already face great risks and are more likely to be subjected to exploitation and abuse by host populations. Sanctions will drive even more people out of the country, further fueling risky migrations toward Europe.

Most severely, sanctions will increase violence against women. These effects are harder to measure but have been documented in a range of countries. In North Korea, economic pressures imposed by sanctions exacerbated intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and the trafficking and prostitution of women and girls.

Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence faced by women in the region – and globally. This remains well hidden, and not sufficiently documented. Systems fail women at every turn – in terms of security, access to justice, and a range of other support. These scant services will all but disappear as sanctions are imposed.

There is no doubt that women’s rights are the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, progress. There is global evidence for this. As the inevitable sanctions on Syria are imposed, we, as members of a global community, must recognize that sanctions are gendered, that the sanctions will have collateral effects on local populations, and we must prepare for the inevitable risks faced by women by bolstering the supports, systems, and services that protect women.

We simply cannot afford to fail women in Syria anymore.



Dr. Lina AbiRafeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University –based in New York and Lebanon. Her background is in gender-based violence prevention and response. She was listed as one of the Gender Equality Top 100 worldwide in both 2018 and 2019.


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