Abeer is sitting in the basement office of a women’s refuge in Beirut. The 30-year-old has multiple ear piercings and perfectly plucked eyebrows, and she chain smokes as she talks.
The guilt trips started as soon as they left Syria, Abeer says. She married Moufak in her hometown of Homs, in Syria, around the time the civil war broke out in 2011. (Both their names have been changed to protect their privacy.) They met through mutual friends; he was a couple of years older than her, working as a laborer.
Abeer had a troubled relationship with her family and was keen to start again. “My stepmother had been abusive, and married me off at 14,” she says. “That was a violent marriage that ended quickly. I could not return to my family. So I was excited to marry Moufak and begin my life.”
As the war intensified, the young couple fled to neighboring Lebanon. Money was tight, and Moufak soon began blaming her for their troubles. “He said it was my fault that we were poor, because he spent his savings on marrying me, so now I should work to help him,” says Abeer. As refugees, it was difficult to find well-paid work, and life in Beirut was expensive.
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One night, Abeer was asleep in their bedroom as Moufak sat downstairs with friends. She heard the door open and assumed it was Moufak; it was one of his friends. The man locked the door, and told Abeer that he had paid Moufak and she had to comply. He raped her. She was three months pregnant.
This was the beginning of her nightmare. First, Moufak pimped Abeer out to his friends, telling her that he would take custody of their young daughter if she left. Later, he forced her to sell herself on the streets. He beat her if she resisted. She and other Syrian women—many of whom, according to Abeer, were also being coerced by their partners or other relatives into sex work—congregated on a busy patch of road in central Beirut, waiting for men to drive past.
“I didn’t know this was his plan,” Abeer says now. “I had married him with the aim of finding a better life.”
Although Moufak took Abeer’s earnings, she was quietly plotting her escape. She put a small amount of money aside, and attended hair and beauty classes, hoping that this would provide her with a legitimate means of making a living. She began to walk around Beirut, orientating herself in this still unfamiliar city. At home, she hid her daughter’s birth certificate and passport so that her husband would not be able to seize them.
Abeer’s situation was horrific, but sadly not unusual. NGOs warn that Syrian refugee women in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, given the toxic mix of poverty, lack of legal residency, and patriarchy. They face harassment and coercion from landlords, employers, and, as in Abeer’s case, sometimes their own families. Exact figures are difficult to come by given that many cases are unreported, but experts suggest the problem is widespread.
Over 75 percent of the one million Syrian refugees registered by the UN in Lebanon are women and children. (There are many more unregistered refugees, whose demography broadly fits the same pattern). Overall, one in four people in the country is a Syrian refugee; jobs are extremely limited. To ease tensions with the local population, the Lebanese government has restricted Syrian access to residence permits. This heightens the risk of exploitation as women are afraid to report abuse to the authorities.
“Refugee women are particularly vulnerable,” says Maeva Breau, the programme coordinator at Kafa, an NGO that runs several women’s shelters in Lebanon. “They fear social exclusion if it becomes known that they are being sexually exploited, and they fear the law because prostitution is illegal and their immigration status is uncertain.”
The stigma around sexual abuse or harassment is so intense that it can be extremely difficult for women to access help. I spoke with numerous NGOs who said they knew women were being exploited, but were only able to offer help after they’d been picked up by police. (Sex work in Lebanon is only legal through licensed brothels. Very few licenses are issued so most prostitution remains illegal.)
"This exploitation of women is a plague and I want to do everything I can to stop it from spreading."
Dar-al-Amal is one of a limited number of Lebanese NGOs that offers support to sex workers. “When I started this work, my family said I shouldn’t work in an NGO related to prostitution,” says Hoda Kara, director of Dar-al-Amal. “You still see it today—funders don’t want to support sex workers. Society won’t accept them. But we support them at all levels to fix their lives. This work can take years to have an effect.”
Shame can prevent women from seeking help, but this is far from being a cultural issue. Many women affected by sexual exploitation are, like Abeer, products of abusive or challenging childhoods even apart from the problems caused by displacement and war. “For the majority of the women I see, the problem started with the family,” says Sara Braish, a psychologist who works at Dar-al-Amal.
And the most significant factor in their vulnerability is also the most obvious. “The sexual exploitation of Syrian women and children happened before the war too, but it was less frequent, or perhaps more hidden,” says Kara. “But during the war, poverty increased, so exploitation increased.”
After several years of abuse, it became too much for Abeer—she took an overdose. Moufak brought her home from the hospital. Although Abeer had previously been too ashamed to tell anyone, she ran out of the house screaming that he was abusing her and forcing her into sex work. Their landlady stepped in to protect her and threatened to call the police to arrest Moufak. He fled back to Syria, and has since disappeared; Abeer believes that he has either died or been kidnapped by militants.
Abeer and her daughter began to rebuild their lives in Beirut. “This is like my home,” says Abeer, sitting in the basement office of one of Dar-Al-Amal’s centers. She received emergency assistance from the charity while she looked for work as a beautician, and obtained support for childcare with their help.
She is angry as she speaks and occasionally becomes tearful. “I have really been through a lot,” she says. “But this exploitation of women is a plague and I want to do everything I can to stop it from spreading.”
On the weekends, she returns to the stretch of road where she was forced to work by her husband. She sits in the bustling café on the corner, at the plastic tables out on the street, where she knows Syrian women congregate. She strikes up conversation, and tells them that they can access services that will support them with their health, their psychological problems, and their childcare.
Some women are aggressive; some think that the NGO she is talking about is a cover for the police. Others laugh and try to convince her to start working with them again. Occasionally, a punter will drive past and proposition her.
For Abeer, these indignities do not matter. “When a cup is broken, you cannot mend it,” she says. “But I am trying.”
The reporting for this article was supported by a media fellowship through the initiative on Religion and the Global Framing of Gender Violence, Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.