Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor of at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim; male rape is punishable by imprisonment up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country. Humanitarian organizations reported that women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. In March the COI reported that government and progovernment forces regularly used rape and sexual violence to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition, as did terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. HTS and ISIS also reportedly forced women and girls into sexual slavery (see sections 1.a., 1.c., and 1.g.).
The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a November 2017 UNFPA report, violence against women and children was pervasive and increasing due to conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.
In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programming specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The government kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but UNFPA reported in November 2017 that honor killings increased since the onset of the crisis in 2011 due to increased sexual violence and lawlessness. For example, UNFPA cited an adolescent girl in Mare, Aleppo, whose friend reportedly was killed by her father when she returned after being kidnapped. To protect their daughters, UNFPA reported that many families arranged for them to marry earlier, leading to an increase in early and forced marriage. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by government forces, for reasons of honor.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS permitted and committed so-called honor killings in territories under their control (see section 1.g.).
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive, uncontrolled, and increasing, according to a November 2017 report by UNFPA. For example, UNFPA cited an adolescent girl from Saraqab, Idlib, who said she formerly returned from university in Aleppo at night without any problems but that harassment of girls has spread, even in the daytime; her parents became worried and prevented her from leaving home.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by the government, but previous reports from Iraq and NGOs such as Yazda and the Free Yezidi Foundation found that ISIS forced Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions. There were reports that ISIS transferred some Yezidi women captives from Iraq to Syria, and the COI reported in March that some ISIS fighters were seen fleeing Raqqa and Deir al-Zour in 2017 with women believed to be Yezidi captives (see section 1.g.).
Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women.
For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man’s. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. For Muslims in particular, personal status law discriminates against women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.
The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.
Before the conflict began, 13 percent of women participated in the formal labor force, compared with 73 percent of men. Both male and female employment participation decreased as violence and insecurity increased, (The International Labor Organization estimated female employment fell by slightly more than 1 percent while male employment fell by almost 3 percent from 2011 to 2017). UNFPA reported local female employment participation increased in Damascus, Raqqa, Daraa, and elsewhere since the need to support the family forced women to work because many men could no longer do so.
The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.
Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories they controlled. For example, in March the COI reported that HTS or ISIS or both: forced women and girls into marriage; imposed a dress code on women and girls; banned women and girls from wearing makeup; required that women and girls must be accompanied by a “mahram” or male member of their immediate family; forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband; forbade widows from living alone; banned women’s centers; banned meetings with mixed male and female participation; and segregated classrooms. Both ISIS and HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment such as lashing to execution.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The government did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.
Education: The government provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.
The conflict and widespread destruction continued to hamper the ability of children to attend school. In June the Assistance Coordination Unit, a local NGO, reported that only 9 percent of the assessed functional schools provided upper secondary education, 36 percent offered lower secondary education, 56 percent offered primary education, and almost one-third of the assessed schools did not separate the various teaching levels.
The terrorist groups, ISIS and HTS, reportedly imposed their interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories they controlled. For example, in March the COI reported that HTS and ISIS: segregated classrooms by gender, dismissed students for dress code violations, imposed their curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. ISIS also banned several basic education subjects, such as chemistry and philosophy.
Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. According to a November 2017 UNFPA report, violence against children, especially girls, was pervasive and increasing due to conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men.
There were reports of government and progovernment forces, as well as the terrorist groups HTS and ISIS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). In July Urnammu reported extensively on such abuses.
The terrorist groups HTS and ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties consent. Early and forced marriages were increasingly common, as were abusive temporary marriages.
In November 2017 UNFPA reported early marriage had evolved from a cultural practice to an increasingly used coping mechanism during the war. Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than pre-2011, believing that it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.
There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of government, progovernment, and armed opposition forces.
In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage; many of those Yezidi women and girls remained captive during the year (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women). In March the COI reported that ISIS perceived unmarried women and girls older than the age of puberty as a threat to social order. As a result, from 2014 onwards, ISIS began to marry forcibly Sunni (also minority) girls and women living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between 12 and 16 years old were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. HTS also reportedly forced Druze and other minority women and girls into marriage, as well as Sunni women and girls.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.
The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child under the age of 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of government prosecution of child rape cases.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat (see section 1.g.).
Displaced Children: There was a large population of IDP children and some refugee children as well. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., and 2.d.).
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
In 2016 NGOs estimated fewer than 20–perhaps fewer than 10–Jews remained in the country. The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law protects the rights of persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, and other state services, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and seeks to integrate them into the workforce, reserving 4 percent of government jobs and 2 percent of private-sector jobs for persons with disabilities. Private-sector businesses are eligible for tax exemptions after hiring persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities, and it worked through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance. Authorities did not fully document the number of persons with disabilities, but the NGO Humanity and Inclusion (HI, formerly Handicap International) reported in April that 30,000 new conflict-related trauma cases per month were leading to thousands of permanent disabilities. According to the local NGO Syria Relief, persons with disabilities remained among the most hidden, neglected, and socially excluded of all displaced persons in the country. They reportedly were not often recognized or calculated in record-keeping and data-collection exercises, contributing to neglect.
The destruction of schools and hospitals, most often by government and progovernment forces, limited access to education and health services for persons with disabilities, but government and nongovernment social care institutes reportedly existed for blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and physical and intellectual disabilities. The government did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to information, communications, building, or transportation. In its November 2017 report, UNFPA detailed how educational institutions, early childcare centers, Quranic schools, and women’s centers often were easily accessible to community members with the exception of the elderly and persons with disabilities. UNFPA further stated that persons with disability were sometimes denied aid, as they could not access it, and some distribution centers required presence in person.
According to a 2017 report by the Syria Reliance Consortium of HI and other international NGOs, 50 percent of households surveyed, who counted a member with a disability, suffered from poor food consumption, compared with 34 percent for households without persons with a disability. In April HI reported that women and girls with disabilities were three times more likely to experience gender-based violence compared with nondisabled women. For example, in a November 2017 report, UNFPA cited the case of a young man in Sweida who lured and raped a disabled girl playing in the street by offering her candy. There was no indication that the government effectively investigated or punished those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.
The government actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as government-sponsored violence. Government and progovernment forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed FSA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals, as well as members of the SDF, during the year (see section 1.g.).
The government continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals.
The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the government and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the government reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived progovernment stance.
In March the COI reported that armed opposition groups detained hundreds of women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Alawites, and used them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with government and progovernment forces.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature,” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years.
In previous years police used this charge to prosecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but NGO reports indicated the government arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. Local media and NGOs reported instances in which government and progovernment forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, torture, and kill civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests.
Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS regularly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). For example, in its March report, the COI described how in 2016 HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra accused two men of being homosexuals, tied their hands behind their backs, announced the accusations of homosexuality over loudspeakers, and threw the two men from the third floor of a building in Sheikhoun, Idlib. Similarly, the COI reported that ISIS executed males, including boys raped by older men, on charges of sodomy and widely circulated videos of the executions to terrorize populations under their control. For example, in its March report, the COI reported that Hisbah belonging to ISIS arrested a teenage boy in Raqqa, charged him with sodomy, and threw him off a building.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were underreported and the UN Development Program (UNDP) noted that stigma affected access to health care. The Ministry of Health claimed in December 2017 there were 35 known cases of HIV/AIDS in the country, while UNDP estimated there were 450 persons with HIV/AIDS. The UNDP and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria assessed that the incapability of the health-care sector to identify newly infected persons or offer medical support in a hostile environment posed a major problem and added to the risk of further spread of the disease among the general population.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Yezidis, Druze, Christians, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS (see section 1.g.).