Submission to the United Nations Special Procedures on Discrimination and Violence against Syrian Women in Law and Practice.
Date: 25th Sep 2020
Urnammu for Justice & Human Rights
Syrian Women’s Network
Kurdish Organization for the Defense of Human Rights
Kurdish Committee For Human Rights
Syrian Democracies Organization
ALkawakibi Organization For Human Rights
For the Attention of:
Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Dr. Dubravka Simonovic;
Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls.
Our organizations write to you in your capacities to draw to your attention the discrimination and other human rights violations committed against Syrian women. For far too long, Syrian women have faced discrimination and violence, due to the inadequacy and failure of national laws to offer them equal rights and protection, and the failure of the Government of Syria to protect Syrian women. This failure by the Government of Syria created a culture of impunity where violence against women is normalized.
With the start of an armed conflict in Syria in 2012, Syrian women were disproportionately affected by the conflict. Syrian women are targeted by all parties to the conflict, subjected to sexual and gender-based violence and left without any form of protection or remedy.
The submitting organizations call on the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council to pay particular attention to the situation of Syrian women, and demand that the Government of Syria amend its discriminatory laws, end its discriminatory practices, and protect Syrian women, in accordance with its international obligations.
- Legal Discrimination against Syrian Women
Syrian laws fail to offer women rights and protections equal to those of men. The Syrian Nationality Law, Syrian Penal Code and personal status laws discriminate against women. Furthermore, there are no national laws in Syria to criminalize domestic violence or sexual harassment in the work environment.
- The Syrian Nationality Law
As a general rule, an individual is a Syrian national only if the father is Syrian (jus sanguinis). Article 3 of the Syrian Nationality Law of 1969 stipulates one exception to this rule, providing that an individual may be considered a Syrian national based on the nationality of their mother if the identity of the father is unknown. Accordingly, women and men are not on equal footing in terms of passing down their nationality.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) had noted with concern the exacerbated effects of Article 3 of the Nationality Law on Syrian women and their children within the context of the armed conflict taking place in Syria. The CEDAW stated that “In the context of the conflict, the Committee is concerned at the adverse impact of statelessness on women and girls and their children, including children born as a consequence of rape, jihad al- nikah (marriages in the name of jihad) as well as child and/or forced marriages, due to their exclusion from services which are restricted to nationals and at the heightened risks of abuse for women and girls in displacement contexts”. The Government of Syria stated in its 2016 follow up on CEDAW concluding observation that its agencies are considering amendments to Article 3 of the Nationality Law. Six years since the CEDAW observation, no amendments have been introduced.
- The Syrian Penal Code
Multiple provisions within the Syrian Penal Code discriminate against women. Despite the amendment of Article 548 in 2020 through Law No. 2/2020, removing grounds for excluding criminal responsibility in cases of ‘honor killings’, many articles still discriminate against women and provide perpetrators with grounds for mitigating their sentences. For example, Article 192 provides that a sentence may be mitigated if it becomes apparent the motive for the crime was “honorable”. The law does not define what is ‘honorable’ leaving room for judicial discretion. Additionally, Article 242 provides that a sentence may be mitigated if the crime was committed ‘in rage’.
Furthermore, marital rape is excluded from the ambit of rape under Article 489, which provides that “whoever coerced someone other than his spouse by violence or threats to have sexual intercourse shall be punished with hard labor for at least fifteen years.” Article 473-474 on the other hand discriminate against women by considering that the crime of adultery can be committed by a male only if it took place in the marital home, while the same crime may be committed by a woman anywhere. The aforementioned articles also provide for a harsher sentence ranging from three months to two years in prison for a married woman who commits adultery compared to one month to one year in prison for a married man.
- The Syrian Personal Status Law
In Syria, multiple legal frameworks regulate personal status issues such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, custody of children and guardianship. All Personal Status laws contain one or more forms of discrimination against women.
To begin with, all of the existing 8 Syrian personal status laws consider the difference of religion between the spouses to be an impediment to inheritance.
The Muslim Personal Status Law No. 59 of 1953 (modified by Law No. 4 of 2019) still provides judges with discretionary powers to marry a boy or a girl who are 15 years old (Article 18). The guardianship system (Wali) in Article 21-24 of the Personal Status Law No. 59 prevents women from independently and freely exercising their right to family and marriage.
As to custody of the children, Law No. 59 and its amendments gives the women priority over the custody of her children in case of divorce, but stipulates that once the child is 15 years old, the father may ask a judge to transfer their custody, without any reference to the best interest of the child.
Before the amendments of 2019, Syrian women were not allowed to travel with their kids outside of Syria without the consent of their father. With the amendments of 2019, both parents need the permission of the other parent when attempting to travel with their kids outside of the country. What this amendment fails to consider is the fact that tens of thousands of males have been killed or subject to enforced disappearance during the armed conflict. This particular issue was picked on by the CEDAW in its 2014 concluding observations on Syria where it took note of the “Difficulties faced by married women whose husbands have gone missing to escape from conflict-affected areas together with their children due to child custody restrictions not allowing them to travel with their children without the consent of their father or guardian.”
- The Reality of Syrian Women
The armed conflict in Syria has had adverse effects on Syrian women and their societal, economic and political situation. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) has documented rape, sexual and gender-based violence against Syrian women and girls during military operations of the Syrian Government’s forces, at checkpoints and within detention centers. during military operations and house arrests, the Government of Syrian and its forces have utilized sexual violence and rape against women as a tactic of war against political dissidents and opposition forces. An interviewee recalls that she saw a graffiti in Dara’a province that read “Your men in our prisons, your women on our laps”.
At checkpoints, officers of the Government of Syria forces routinely harassed women and girls, subjected them to degrading treatment, invaded their privacy by conducting intimate searches, and subjected many of them to rape and beatings.
While in route to detention centers, abducted women and girls are humiliated, subjected to intimate searches and physically abused. Upon arrival to detention centers, women and girls as young as 9 years old are subject to sexual abuse, sexual torture and rape. Even pregnant women reported being raped in detention centers. The Syrian Government specifically employs rape to humiliate and intimidate women detainees. Many women reported being gang raped by officers of the Government of Syria and in front of other officers or detained women and men. These practices at detention centers are not isolated sporadic acts, but rather conducted as part of an official systematic and widespread policy of the Government of Syria against individuals it perceives as sympathizers or supporters of the opposition.
Following release from detention centers, women and girls find it difficult to re-integrate into their society, due to the social stigma they face. There is a common believe in Syria that detained women were subject to rape and have thus shamed the ‘honor’ of the family. This leads to Syrian detained women and girls being rejected by their society and family. Furthermore, psychological, medical, and legal support for women is lacking.
The difficulty in resuming their marital relationships is a common theme among formerly detained Syrian women. According to a psychologist working with victims, “[c]ases of divorce rise upon the release of Syrian female detainees, firstly because of the delayed impact of the arrest on the victim when she has to confront society. In some cases, the image of the executioner and the harasser remains the subliminal image of males among women detainees, which then leads them to reject masculinity as such. This makes it difficult for the woman to develop or continue relations with the opposite sex. And even in cases where divorce does not occur, we often see a change in the husband’s treatment of his wife. The couple may stay together just for the sake of protecting their children, but detention usually affects the intimacy of the nucleus of the family.”
Children and younger siblings of detained women experience grievous effects too. Many will have difficulty with social integration and psychological development, and feelings of guilt and blame will often feature prominently in the relationship between a woman and her children. In some cases, children may also reject their mother due to the fact of her sudden disappearance from their lives.
Single women encounter more difficulties with respect to social integration, and often face rejection from their inner social circle and community. This leaves them in a situation of additional vulnerability. Pregnancies due to rape are the main difficulties formerly detained women are confronted with. In addition to possibly rejecting the baby, it is tangible proof of her subjection to rape, which consequently ‘shames’ her family and subjects her to the repercussions.
The economic impact on women after detention is also stark. First, her ability to move is restricted due to attempts by her family to protect her and prevent further harm from being done to her. Secondly, employers are usually reluctant to hire formerly detained women on account of the persistent threat by security forces. One woman recalled finding a job at a printing press in Damascus and being fired when the owner discovered she is a former detainee. He reportedly told her he did not want problems with the government’s security. In addition to the perceptible traces of torture on her body, she continues to suffer from depression and insomnia.
The Impact of Male Detention on Women
Because most victims of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are men, women bear the burden of losing the family ‘breadwinners’. In this state of vulnerability, many have had to work to support their families. They have also spent substantial amounts on searching for their relatives and legal costs. This also means travelling on their own through conflict zones and being subjected to harassment, and even sexual abuse, by gatekeepers or security officers. The burden of inquiring about male relatives at military headquarters also falls on women’s shoulders, as men are more likely to be detained by the act.
Additionally, the legal impact of male detention means that Syrian women cannot remarry, inherit, or travel with their children as these situations require the consent of the husband or proof of his death. They thus remain in limbo. According to the former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang, “[in] societies where gender-based discrimination in laws and policies hinders the full realization of the human rights of women and limits their autonomy and participation in aspects of public and political life, the social and economic impact of disappearances is felt more strongly and, in turn, renders women and their children more vulnerable to exploitation and social marginalization.”
Participation in Public Life
Syrian women have always been underrepresented in official and public positions. In the recent parliamentary elections in July 2020, there were only 200 women candidates among 1658 candidates, which resulted in 28 female candidates succeeding in securing seats at the parliament of 250 seats.
- Legal Analysis
Syria is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); The International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).
Discriminatory Syrian laws against women run contrary to the non-discrimination clauses enshrined in Article 2 (1) of the ICCPR, Article 2 (2) of the ICESCR and multiple Articles of CEDAW (e.g. Articles 9, 15, 16, 29, 15). Furthermore, reservations filed by the Government of Syria to CEDAW at the time of ratification undermine the object and purpose of the convention. In its concluding observations on the second review of Syria, the CEDAW Committee noted that it “welcomes the renewed commitment of the State party to withdraw its reservations to articles 2 and 15 (4) of the Convention. However, it is concerned that no consideration has so far been given to the withdrawal of the remaining reservations of the State party to articles 9 (2), 16 (1) (c), (d), (f) and (g), 16 (2) and 29 (1).” and called on the Government of Syria to “urgently complete the internal process to withdraw its reservations to articles 2 and 15 (4) of the Convention. It also calls upon the State party to review its remaining reservations to the Convention, taking into consideration the Committee’s statement on reservations (adopted at the nineteenth session, in 1998) with a view to withdrawing all of them.” Six years later, the Government of Syria is yet to withdraw its reservation to Article 2 of CEDAW or any of the other Articles of CEDAW.
Article 9 (2) of CEDAW provides that“States Parties shall grant women an equal right to men regarding the nationality of their children”, while as shown above, the Syrian Nationality Law discriminates against women in this regard.
Turning to violence, sexual and gender-based violence, torture, rape and other forms of violations committed against Syrian women inside and outside of detention centres. Acts of the Syrian Government and its affiliated militias run contrary to the obligations of Syria under the ICCPR. Mainly; Article 6 (right to life); Article 7 (right to be from torture); Articles 9&10 (right to liberty and security); Article 12 (right to freedom of movement); Article 23 (right to family life); Article 26 (right to equality before the law). Furthermore, the Government of Syria failed to investigate violations committed by its agents and have failed to provide victims of those violations with an effective remedy, in violation of its obligation under Article 2 (3) (b). Acts of torture and other cruel acts committed by the Government of Syria violate its obligations under the CAT.
Finally, as the Government of Syria has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in human rights treaties, it must ensure that it takes concrete steps that respond to the current needs of Syrian women, their inability to properly exercise their human rights, and the social, economic, psychological that the armed conflict have had on them.
- Conclusion and Recommendations
To conclude, the Government of Syria failed to uphold and respect its international obligations. Its actions have a created a culture of impunity where violations of women rights are normalized. Accordingly, the submitting organizations demand that the Government of Syria:
- Cease acts of torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, rape, sexual violence and other violations against women.
- Investigate and punish those responsible for committing human rights violations and provide women victims of violations with an effective remedy.
- Amend Syrian domestic laws to bring them in harmony with Syria’s international obligations, with a view to ending discrimination against women.
Furthermore, the submitting organizations respectfully call on the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council to:
- Take action with regards to the information provided in this submission.
- Give special attention to the right of victims of human rights violations in Syria to an effective remedy.
- Engage with Syrian civil society on the situation of Syrian women.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of Syria, CEDAW/C/SYR/CO/2, 18 July 2014, para. 37.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Information provided by the Syrian Arab Republic in follow-up to the concluding observations, CEDAW/C/SYR/CO/2/Add.1, 29 March 2016.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of Syria, CEDAW/C/SYR/CO/2, 18 July 2014, para. 45.
 Conference room paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, ‘“I lost my dignity”: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic’, A/HRC/37/CRP.3 , 8 March 2018, para. 11.
 Ibid. paras. 22-26.
 Ibid. paras. 27-42.
 Ibid. para. 34.
 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, ‘Detention of Women in Syria: A weapon of war & terror’https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/321-emhrn-womenindetention-en-final.pdf
 NGO Summary report for the UPR of Syria ‘Violations against Women in Syria and the Disproportionate Impact of the Conflict on them’ (November 2016) available at <https://iknowpolitics.org/sites/default/files/syria.pdf>
 Anna Fleischer, ‘Gender impact of enforced disappearances in Syria’ (May 2020) <http://www.icip-perlapau.cat/numero38/articles_centrals/article_central_5/>
 ‘Protecting women from the impact of enforced disappearances’ OHCHR (2012).
 Salwa Zakzak, Women and Elections, http://swnsyria.org/?p=12885 (Arabic).
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of Syria, CEDAW/C/SYR/CO/2, 18 July 2014, para. 15.
 Ibid. para. 16.