Syria is flush with war profiteers taking advantage of the most devastating aspects of the conflict, from the black-market trade of burial plots to the monopoly on dairy in besieged areas. The crumbling economy has made survival in Syria dependent on a – usually extortionate – system of transactions and trades. Perhaps the most brutal consequence of this has been the use of women as a form of currency.
Women are kidnapped for ransom, sold into marriage and, in some cases, traded for weapons and goods and used as negotiation leverage. Syria is not the first conflict in which women have been used as tools to further political, military or financial goals by the warring factions. But in Syria women have become an instrumental part of a war economy that is largely built on violence against them, experts say.
“Using women [as currency] is common when someone is in an urgent need of something but they can’t possibly afford it,” Eman Obeid, a gender-based violence specialist for the Danish Refugee Council, told Syria Deeply.
Even the civilian echelons of Syrian society have used women as a form of currency, where they can be exchanged for protection, permission to cross a border or front line or even the cost of rent.
“Sometimes this is being used to extract power from someone stronger … and sometimes it’s the other way around, someone with more power demands a woman when money is not available,” Obeid said.
Kidnap for Ransom
The kidnapping and trade of women for ransom payments has been a source of significant income for warring parties in Syria. The so-called Islamic State, for example, has collected an estimated $40 million in ransom payments from the families of abducted women and girls in Iraq and Syria.
One of the most notorious, albeit lucrative kidnappings has been that of the hundreds of Assyrian Christians – many of whom were women – taken from Hassakeh province in February 2015. ISIS demanded an $18 million ransom payment, but eventually settled for less, according to the Associated Press.
“When we talk about the political economy of terrorism, and the suppression of terrorist financing, we talk about the oil trade or antiquities market. But we don’t talk about sexual violence,” Letitia Anderson, the advocacy and women’s rights specialist with U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, told Syria Deeply.
“The amount of revenue generated from trafficking women, extorting their families, forcing ransoms, forcibly marrying women and girls is not negligible,” she said.
Pro-government militias have also been accused of kidnapping women and girls for ransom. The practice was particularly prominent and on the rise in Damascus in 2016, according to reports published on the activist-run Syria Untold and The Syrian Observer media outlets. Pro-government militias largely targeted women from wealthy families or the daughters of prominent figures “because their parents are able and willing to pay large sums of money to free their daughters quickly due to fear of rape and scandal,” Rami Zineddin, a resident of Damascus, told Syria Untold last summer, adding that the average amount to free a woman who was kidnapped was roughly 5 million Syrian pounds ($9,709).
The Syrian government denounced these accusations, claiming victims were fabricating their own kidnappings to extort their families for money.
The Cost to Cross
Putting a price tag on women has also significantly decreased their freedom of movement within the country to cross Syria’s borders – with levels of risk that vary from town to town.
Obeid had to make several different transformations to her appearance during the journey from her hometown in Deir Ezzor to Turkey. She first arrived in a “cool” district, where she was able to blend in easily, but she had to move on to more traditional districts, where she wore a veil and a black dress. When she got closer to the Euphrates River, she said she dressed like a farmer, keeping her black dress with her. She paid a “fixer” 100,000 Syrian pounds ($194) to arrange a boat to cross the Euphrates into ISIS-held territory.
“While in water, I changed the clothes and ISIS-ed up,” she said. “Crossing the ISIS checkpoint is repulsive. You have to check all the three layers – what they call “Sharia” clothing, full face cover, black socks, black shoes and black gloves. Missing any part of it means your life or your soul is in danger. “Once I was just cleaning my glasses. I had to take off one layer of the three off my face, and when I couldn’t see clearly, one ISIS man ran to me and hit me with a rifle on my shoulder shouting, ‘Cover your face, woman!’”
Obeid’s mother and sister made similar journeys, but the women decided to split up before making the journey, so that both wouldn’t be “compromised if something bad happened,” Obeid said.
ISIS requires women crossing within their territory to be accompanied by a man, but they had also banned men under the age of 65 from leaving Deir Ezzor. This left Obeid’s family with only their father as an option. He accompanied her mother, leaving her sister Yamama to make the crossing alone. ISIS arrested Yamama.
“They used my sister … and demand something to release her, arguing that she cannot leave without being accompanied by a man,” Obeid said.
Obeid now works on the cases of many Syrian women who have had endured similarly brutal experiences while traveling both within the country and across its borders, some at the hands of other civilians. She recalled to Syria Deeply the case of a father who sold his 19-year-old daughter into a marriage with a 65-year-old Turkish man in exchange for his help crossing the border.
In a separate case, one Syrian woman could not afford the fee when she decided to flee. The smugglers agreed to accept a trade instead: They would rape her in exchange for allowing her to cross the border.
In the same way that women have been exchanged for money, they have also been traded for weapons, goods and services.
The trade of Syrian women has also spilled over to neighboring countries. “Many women spoke of being approached by their landlords for sexual relations or favors in return for rent ‘payment,’” Mohammed, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, told the International Rescue Committee in a report.
Eman discussed a similar case in Turkey, where a homeowner offered a Syrian widow one year’s rent in exchange for marrying her daughter.
“It’s like the price of a year rental is a young female,” Obeid said.
A November 2016 report by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom found the Syrian government guilty of arresting women “in order to trade them with weapons of armed opposition groups,” the report said. “The last months have witnessed unprecedented arrests, apparently for this purpose only.”
In July 2015, the Syrian government arrested two women from the town of Dael in Daraa province, later releasing them in exchange for money and “20 pieces of weapons” delivered from rebels to government troops, according to the report. Similar incidents have also been recorded in the areas of Tafas and Atman, also in Daraa province, the report said.
A 2015 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) provided more examples of women being detained by the Syrian government and traded for goods. The report mentions the case of Sahar who was arrested in 2012 for nine months in Sweida along with her 13-year-old son on ambiguous charges of “dealing with terrorists.” She was released as part of an agreement between the Syrian government and an unspecified opposition faction. Under the terms of the agreement, Syrian rebels would deliver food to Syrian troops besieged in a prison in Deraa province in exchange for her release.
“The deal was (to release me) in exchange for food to be delivered to the Syrian government soldiers inside the prison,” Sahar said in her testimony.
Syrian women detained in government prisons have emerged as a key asset for the Syrian government in captive exchange deals with opposition factions. Just last week, Jaish Osoud al-Sharqiya, a Free Syrian army affiliate in southern Syria, released a Syrian pilot they had captured in mid-August in exchange for the release of a number of female detainees from government prisons.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), since March 2011 some 13,920 women and girls have been arbitrarily detained in Syria, and as of February 2017, at least 7,500 remained in detention. Of these detainees, around 6,000 are being held by pro-government forces.
“From our standpoint, the Syrian authorities see those women as an additional investment,” SNHR wrote in their 2016 report on the situation of women in Syria. “They use these women in captive exchange deals with factions from the armed oppositions. They are trying to benefit from these detainees as much as possible.”
Syrian rebel groups have also resorted to the detention of women to extract confessions from the Syrian government. According to EMHRN, since 2013 opposition groups have increasingly resorted to the detention of women to acquire bargaining power in negotiations with the Syrian government over the release of rebel fighters.
In 2016, opposition groups “used” women and girls in Hama province “in captive exchange deals with government forces,” according to SNHR.
“As a result, Syrian women are being targeted in an indiscriminate manner by most parties to the conflict who use them to gain weight in their negotiations on hostage exchanges,” EMHRN said in a report.