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The ongoing crisis in Syria and the resultant humanitarian catastrophe for millions is taking an intolerable toll on individuals, families, communities and nations.
Desperate times lead to desperate measures. This is true not only for those on the battlefields but also for those responsible for caring for children and loved ones, those with few means and little hope.

Reports have been coming out about the rapid growth in the practice that has become known as “survival sex.”

The term alone gives us a clue as to the motivations of these women, who are at times prepared to give away their dignity and often sense of humanity for as little as $7 at a time in order to scrape together enough to make ends meet to keep themselves and their loved ones alive.

A recent Voice of America report by Jamie Dettmer stated: “Qass Em-Saad of the Lebanese branch of the aid organization Developmental Action Without Borders says Syrian women and girls are so desperate they are selling themselves for as little as 10,000 Lebanese pounds – about $7 – outside Ain Helweh, the Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon where more than 20,000 Palestinian Syrians have sought refuge.”

When I lived in East London, most of the sex workers known to our church community were “working” in order to feed their drug habit. 

Within Lebanon, stories are emerging of growing numbers of Syrian and Palestinian refugee women who have reached such desperation that they are willing to “sell themselves” in order to provide food and shelter for their children.

Various “hubs” have developed in which such practices are becoming commonplace if reports are to be believed. And again, it is poverty and marginalization that are at the root cause.

While this particular issue is extremely sensitive and, of course, open to moral outcry – often from one religious tradition or another – the fact is that this is an issue that needs to be considered by those who claim to follow Jesus – the Jesus who associated not only with “tax collectors,” religious leaders and disciples, but also with the prostitutes, the poor and the marginalized.

All too often it is the women, themselves the victims, who bear the brunt of such an outcry, and in most contexts are the ones criminalized.

However, rather than reflecting upon the apparent criminality of such activities, I want to ask these questions: What would I do in order to ensure my children were fed? What would you do?

This moves us away from the typical moral questions that surround the topic of human sexuality and sexual deviance and into a discussion about self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, sacrifice rooted in love.

It seems ironic in these instances that the women’s choice to demean themselves in this way is motivated by love, but that the sex taking place has nothing to do with love at all, but simply inhumane, self-indulgent gratification on the part of the men.

Dettmer’s Voice of America article also reported that aid workers have said: “Organized criminal trafficking isn’t large scale in Lebanon. What has become endemic is women and girls being forced by their circumstances to resort to street-walking and survival sex, and the aid workers say many men are happy to exploit their plight, seeing them as fair game.”

Sahar Samhoun, a social worker based in the Bekaa Valley, shared with a reporter for The Daily Star of Lebanon that “when [a refugee] resorts to being a prostitute … it’s because she doesn’t want to die, she wants to survive.”

However, I would imagine that many of these women might prefer death to the horrendous ordeals they are willing to put themselves through in order to feed their children.

Perhaps they continue to live lives – lives invariably leading to social ostracism and shame – out of a love and commitment toward those for whom they bear responsibility.

I am led by all this to ask:

â—     What future do these women have?

â—     In which ways can the local and global church play a prophetic role in seeking justice and work to restore the dignity of these women, victims of the ongoing crisis?

â—     How should those responsible for the systematic trafficking of these women within Lebanon and beyond be dealt with by the authorities?

â—     How should we respond to those nongovernmental organization workers who are offering “aid for sex” to the most vulnerable?

These are questions to which I have no answer, to my shame. What we must never do, however, is ignore what is going on. We must not retreat and stay quiet.

While the Western powers have been playing politics, contemplating military strikes and exploring diplomatic solutions, please spare a thought and a prayer for those individuals who continue to exist in a living hell, regardless of the geopolitical realities surrounding them.

Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

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