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Alone and vulnerable: The creeping increase in child abuse cases across north Syria

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Alone, scared, and vulnerable. Just three of a countless number of the words that could be used to describe the forgotten children of Syria.

Most have managed to escape death from the brutal bombings, killings, and extreme poverty their country has endured throughout a devastating eleven-year war. Yet, over 6.5 million children in Syria remain in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, according to the United Nations agency for children’s rights, UNICEF.

Among these children are those who face harm at the hands of the people closest to them, as local NGO data shows a creeping increase in cases of child abuse, which they say stems from the ever-growing political, economic, and psychological challenges citizens in the country face.

These challenges have had an especially damning effect on the crowded northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, the last remaining areas in the country held by the Syrian opposition. They are home to over four million Syrians, at least half of whom are displaced and living in desperate conditions after fleeing from the Syrian regime’s rule.

In 2021, the northern region’s leading child protection organisation Hurras Network and the Child Houses Organisation recorded 52 mild to severe cases of physical and psychological child abuse perpetrated by caregivers, Protection Coordinator at Hurras Network and Program Manager at Child Houses Faisal Hamoud told The New Arab.

Yet, so far this year – in just over five months – 37 cases of child abuse have been reported, leading the organisations to predict an “escalation” in the number of cases in 2022. The Syrian Civil Defence – otherwise known as the White Helmets – and Syria Relief also told The New Arab child abuse is becoming “more common” in Syria.

One severe case of abuse documented in the region sparked outrage across social media just last month as a video of a six-year-old displaced orphan named Maram Assaf emerged, showing her tied up outside of her grandfather’s shelter.

The child’s doctor said she showed clear signs of having suffered from child abuse, as the bruises on her body proved.

Maram was tied outside because there was “only one room in her grandfather and his wife’s shelter and he didn’t want Maram to leave the premises”, Hamoud said, explaining that his team at Child Houses have been in close contact with her case.

“Child abuse cases are considered fairly common within the community… especially in camps… as war and displacement have led to an increase in material burdens… and there is a lack of awareness on how to deal with children,” Protection Officer at Hurras Network Kamal explained to The New Arab. 

Hamoud highlighted that “as the economic crisis escalates, so does the probability of violence against children… as it puts pressure on parents”, making them more likely to lash out.

In addition, parents who send their children to work and have become reliant on their child’s income may turn to abuse if their child fails to adequately provide. Such cases can add another layer of mistreatment to a working child’s life, as many are already abused and exploited in their attempts to make money. 

A Syrian Civil Defence – otherwise known as the White Helmets – volunteer Ismail Al-Abdullah highlighted the importance of understanding that the perpetrators and their victims “are severely traumatised after having their entire lives destroyed by war” when looking for a solution to the issue. 

Hurras Network has a variety of programs, initiatives, and campaigns aimed at protecting and educating vulnerable children, alongside defending human rights. On the other hand, Child Houses specialise in providing temporary care and shelter to children, alongside medical, educational and psychological support, especially to orphaned and homeless children. 

Child Houses’ priority is to improve the conditions of a child’s immediate family to ensure a child’s safe return. Where they feel the child will not be secure or safe with their immediate family, they move to examine the extended family, before moving to a third option of finding a new family to embrace the child, if they believe their extended relatives cannot provide sufficient care. 

“Children separated from their families in Syria are some of the weakest, most defenceless children present in the world… our vision is that the child has the right to be part of a secure family,” Hamoud told The New Arab.

International organisations have also worked to elevate child protection services in Syria. Between January to April this year, UNICEF reached over 13,750 vulnerable children with their services – which include medical and interim care, psychosocial support, and legal assistance.

"In order to prevent these cases of child abuse, we must bring back peace, stability, and normalcy to Syria. This starts with justice and accountability with the Assad regime, the ones who destroyed these Syrians' lives"
Approximately 10,000 of these children were in northern Syria, Eva Hinds, Chief of Communication at UNICEF Syria told The New Arab. However, Eva stressed more funding is “urgently required” for the organisation to sustain their services.

Save the Children also work to provide psychosocial support and awareness-raising sessions to Syrian communities.

“All Children deserve to grow up safely… It is vital that all actors… at different levels… work together… with parents and communities to provide them with support… and end abusive practices,” Kathryn Achilles, Advocacy, Media and Communications Direction for Save the Children’s Syria Response told The New Arab.

Achilles also said “ensuring that parents have access to jobs and livelihoods opportunities”, would prevent children from being forced into child labour, where they may be exposed to further abuse.

Local NGOs also believe the solution lies in the empowerment of society, but also in finding a political solution to the “unjust” war, which began after activists demanded democracy during the country’s 2011 uprising.

“What must be done is to empower society and its families in all ways… including economically, socially and educationally, so that it can restore itself… above all, the unjust war machine that has been going on against the Syrian people for nearly twelve years must be stopped,” Hamoud said.

The White Helmets also echoed Hamoud's view. "In order to prevent these cases of child abuse, we must bring back peace, stability, and normalcy to Syria. This starts with justice and accountability with the Assad regime, the ones who destroyed these Syrians’ lives. It starts with putting an end to the continuous bombings. It starts with returning [displaced] people back to their proper homes," Al-Abdullah said.

The reality is that by their very existence, Syrian children have given an entirely new meaning to the word ‘child’.

“This conflict is pushing many Syrian people well beyond the thresholds of desperation and it is the most vulnerable, like children, who are often the victims of this,” Jessica Adams, Head of Marketing and Communications at Syria Relief told The New Arab.

As cases of physical and psychological child abuse in the northern, most vulnerable region of Syria increase, many other issues in the realm of child protection also haunt the country's youth, including sexual abuse, early marriage, and trafficking.

The road to creating a safer and and more secure environment for Syria’s children is therefore long and complex, but with the right attention and funding, it’s one that is certainly attainable. 

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Aisha Aldris is a journalist and podcast host, accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. She specialises in social and humanitarian issues, alongside cultural identity and the arts. Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris

The New Arab
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