Study reveals domestic abuse is widespread in Syria

The first study of its kind in the country shows 25 percent of women may be victims of violence.

This country's only shelter for abused women is largely a secret. Victims learn about it through local churches, aid agencies, or lawyers. It has just 10 beds for the 22 people who were recently staying there.

But a new study released earlier this month that says as many as 1 in 4 Syrian women may be victims of physical violence is beginning to reveal just how widespread a problem domestic abuse is throughout the country.

The study, funded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and conducted by the state-run General Union of Women, is the first of its kind to try to quantify and explain the types of violence Syrian women face.

"Violence is in every home in the Arab world," says a woman who works at the shelter and asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work.

"The number of abused women is more than 1 in 4. We hope that with a hotline we'll be able to help the largest number of women possible. We hope we can provide these women with a type of hope so they can know themselves and can rebuild their self-esteem," she says.

The shelter is currently working on acquiring a larger home and is trying to set up a hotline for domestic abuse. There are no domestic abuse hotlines in Syria.

Women's rights activists pin the problem of violence against women on societal shame associated with divorce, a lack of education on what exactly abuse entails, a shortage of shelters, and weak laws that fail to protect women who face abuse.

"There is a type of traditional thinking that it's [shameful] to go to the police with such problems," says Maen Abdul-Salam, who heads Etana Press, a publishing house dedicated to women's issues. "Families usually feel ashamed. They don't want to talk about it. There needs to be more education to change the mentality."

The study of nearly 1,900 families found that violence against women was more prevalent in the countryside than in cities, that domestic abuse was more likely to happen in homes facing economic hardship and in homes where men were less educated or where women married at very young ages.

Yahya Aous, the editor of, a website dedicated to women's issues, says a major problem is that many women are not even aware that they may be victims.

"Women start to feel like abuse is a normal part of life," says Mr. Aous. "She no longer believes it is violence. And if a woman is facing violence, there is no place she can go where they will help her with the law and with her situation."

While activists hailed the report as a first step in tackling the problem of abuse, they also said that discrepancies in the numbers and the wording of the report pose real concerns.

"This is a good report because it is the first time there is an official recognition that women are facing violence, especially to this extent," says Bassam Kadi, an activist who heads the Syrian Women's Website. "But the language in the report is not objective. In one way or another, it holds the same biases that are available on the ground."

The report says that violence often takes place because of "mistakes" made by the women or because they neglected their household duties or because they asked too many questions.

In one segment of the report, the statistics show that nearly a quarter of Syrian women are victims of physical violence. But elsewhere in the study, statistics used show that the number of women who have been beaten is closer to 1 in 10, leading to confusion about the actual number.

Like many other Arab countries, statistics on domestic abuse are hard to come by because few studies are done on the subject. Activists blame the statistical discrepancies in this newest report on a lack of professional statisticians trained to conduct such studies.

Mr. Kadi and others also say that the report fails to address the root of the problem by tackling the inadequacies in the Syrian law.

"They say the Syrian laws are good, but they are not," says Kadi. "A woman needs to have her nose broken before she can really do anything. The laws do not deal with all types of violence, like mere beating. There should be details on the role of the laws in promoting violence. They needed to ask for new laws that protect women from all types of violence."

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