Syria's civil war has caused a big increase in ‘honour killings' and child marriages and the breakdown of the healthcare system, a British-Syrian doctor said on Wednesday.
Healthcare has also become a ‘weapon of war' for the government, which has targeted doctors and withheld vaccinations from children in opposition-held areas, said Rola Hallam, a volunteer with the medical charity Hand in Hand in Syria.
She said women and girls who had been raped during the conflict then found they were being stigmatised by their relatives, adding to their misery.
“If they are married they are (being) divorced. Their families do not want them. There are lots of honour killings going on,” she told an international women's rights conference in London hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times.
Women and minors in Syria are being raped by government and paramilitary forces, Hallam said.
“My dad is a gynaecologist and he was referred an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old pregnant girl as a result of that,” she said. Their fathers had threatened to kill them, and they had been abandoned by their families.
Some 2.2 million Syrians have fled the country during the three-year conflict, mostly to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Many are unaccompanied women with children. Women and girls in refugee camps and overcrowded accommodation in urban areas are at risk of sexual and domestic violence.
Hallam said there was also strong evidence that men were coming to Syria from other parts of the Arab world to marry vulnerable women and take them back to countries in the Gulf and elsewhere. Some of these men had "very suspect histories" while others were almost certainly involved in trafficking.
Parents struggling to survive are also marrying off their daughters, the conference heard.
“We are seeing a huge rise in child marriages because families just don't know what to do with their kids, especially when it's the mums on their own,” Hallam added.
Hallam, a specialist in intensive care, told the conference there had been a “near total destruction of the health system” in Syria.
“What very few people know is that the health system has been targeted by the Syrian government,” she added. “Doctors, nurses and hospitals have been specifically targeted and (it is) using healthcare as a weapon of war in Syria. Over 60 percent of our hospitals have been destroyed, most of the doctors have left the country.”
In Aleppo city just 35 out of 5,000 doctors remain, Hallam said. “If you go to the biggest hospital in Aleppo, which receives up to 250 patients a day, you are seen by two medical students, a vet, a dentist and a secretary,” she added.
The lack of maternal care services in Syria has led to a big rise in newborn deaths and deaths of babies from starvation and malnutrition, she said.
“Immunisations are being actively stopped from being given to kids in the majority of the country - not the government-held areas but in opposition-held areas,” Hallam added.
She said mental health problems were escalating fast as women fled the fighting with their children, describing this as "a really dangerous, invisible health problem.”
Volker Turk, director of protection at the U.N. refugee agency, said research suggested more than half of Syrian women and girl refugees had psychosocial needs. “We have a very traumatised population,” he said.
Hallam told the conference the uprising against the government had had a big impact on the role of women in Syria, up to 85 percent of whom did not have jobs before the rising began.
“With the beginning of the revolution thousands and thousands of women found their voice. And for the first time in a very male-dominated society they were being included as equals with their men, encouraged to protest, to be activists ...” she said.
But, although women's groups remain active in civil society and women are going into politics, the overwhelming effect of the crisis has been negative.
“Over half the population are homeless now – that's more than 13 million people are homeless – mainly women and children. And they are not making ends meet," she said.
Women are being forced into the role of head of the household and breadwinner without the necessary skills and with few jobs available, Hallam said.
“A lot of these women probably left school when they were 10, 11, 12. They've not got any work experience, they haven't got any of the tools to take up jobs and make themselves financially viable.”