The information below is based on the Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council (S/2018/250) issued on 16 April 2018.

Seven years of conflict and humanitarian crisis continues to cause intolerable human suffering, with sexual violence used as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism. Sexual violence, harassment, abduction and forced marriage have affected numerous women and girls. A recurrent concern is the fear of sexual assault when passing checkpoints, which results in restricted mobility. Those who are most vulnerable are internally displaced women and children from previously besieged towns (see A/HRC/36/55). First-hand accounts from women who have been detained in connection with the conflict consistently involve sexual violence, torture and psychological trauma. The rape and sexual torture of men and boys in detention settings, often aimed at extracting confessions during interrogation, has also been a hidden horror of the conflict. Owing to social norms and honour codes, however, men tend to be celebrated by their community upon their release, whereas women face shame, stigma and rejection by husbands or parents, who assume that they were raped in custody. “Honour killings” of women and girls have followed not only in cases of rape, but even in cases of assumed rape, indecent assault and street harassment. Such killings have reportedly increased since the onset of the crisis, owing to rising rates of sexual violence and lawlessness and the proliferation of extremist groups. Syrian women describe a daily struggle to survive, with many suffering serious physical injuries consistent with rape, including traumatic fistulae and sexually transmitted infections. In response to the elevated risk of sexual assault, child marriage has morphed from a cultural practice into a coping mechanism. While early marriage is not a new phenomenon in the Syrian Arab Republic, the protracted nature of the conflict has led to an increase in the rate of early marriage and a decrease in the age of brides, which has taken a heavy toll on Syrian girls, exposing them to domestic and intimate partner violence, unwanted pregnancies, lost educational and employment opportunities, isolation and psychological harm. Adolescent girls, women and girls who are heads of household, widows and divorcees are at greatest risk of forced marriage, polygamy and serial temporary marriages.

Fear of rape is frequently cited by female refugees as a primary factor inducing flight, but the risk of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking remains high in and around refugee and displaced persons camps, owing to overcrowding, lack of privacy, financial desperation and lawlessness. Women and girls with disabilities have been exposed to sexual exploitation, in particular when separated from their caregivers. The challenge of registering children, whose fathers are missing, including those born to survivors of rape, places them at risk of statelessness, especially when mothers are legally unable to confer their nationality upon their children. In addition, the prohibition on pregnancy outside of wedlock has led to the forcible removal from some married women of children conceived as a result of rape. Displaced and refugee women often lack work permits in their own name, placing them at risk of exploitation by landlords, informal employers and criminal networks, with some having been sold into prostitution or marriage. Sexual violence, mainly in detention settings, is a primary reason cited by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex civilians for fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic; they are also among the most vulnerable re fugees in the region, in particular in host countries where same-sex relations are criminalized.

During the period under review, continuing hostilities and access restrictions posed significant challenges with regard to monitoring, in addition to the trauma and stigma associated with sexual violence deterring survivors from coming forward. The United Nations verified eight cases of conflict-related sexual violence against girls, including rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery, seven of which were attributed to ISIL and one to the pro-Government Shu’aytat militias (see A/72/361-S/2017/821). Accounts were received of ISIL fighters demanding marriage of girls living in areas under their control. In one verified case, a 14-year-old girl was abducted and gangraped by six ISIL fighters after her family refused marriage. Thousands of Iraqi Yazidi women and girls, captured since August 2014, continued to be trafficked into and across the Syrian Arab Republic, where they have been used as sex slaves as part of the terrorist group’s ongoing campaign of targeting members of minority groups. Emerging reports indicate that additional women and girls from the Yazidi community, and other targeted minority groups, have been forcibly transferred to the Syrian Arab Republic, following military operations in 2017 to liberate areas of Iraq controlled by ISIL.

Both the range and geographical reach of services for survivors of gender-based violence increased over the past year, however, more than half of all communities remain in dire need of shelter facilities for women and girls. Barriers to access to services included distance and lack of transportation, affecting in particular women from rural areas, family restrictions and fear of stigmatization. The United Nations has supported the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and Population in establishing a family protection unit to respond to sexual and gender-based violence. The unit began providing psychosocial support, case management, medical care and legal counselling in August. UNFPA supports a number of safe spaces for women and girls in the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as in refugee settings in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. With regard to the peace process led by the Syrian Arab Republic, my Special Envoy for Syria continued to work with the women’s advisory board and established a civil society support room, through which more than 500 civil society organizations have been consulted, with women comprising approximately 40 per cent of participants (see S/2017/861). Despite extensive documentation of patterns of conflict-related sexual violence, not a single perpetrator has faced prosecution, either in the Syrian Arab Republic or abroad. However, an encouraging development is that the international, impartial and independent mechanism to support prosecution for the most serious crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic includes staff with dedicated expertise in addressing sexual violence.

Recommendation

I call upon all parties to immediately end the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, torture or terrorism and to ensure protection for those who are most vulnerable, including displaced civilians and detainees. I further call for crimes of sexual violence to be addressed in ceasefire agreements, political negotiations, peace talks and accountability initiatives, which will require the direct parti cipation of women, and for the rights of women to be central in the constitution drafting process. I commend the countries hosting Syrian refugees and encourage them to protect and assist those who have suffered sexual violence or may be at risk of exploitation.