TEL EL-HAYAT, Lebanon – The Syrian refugee woman huddled in the latest room she calls home, a peeling, run-down place outside a north Lebanese village. The mother of six doesn't know how she'll pay the rent. She's gotten by over the past year by taking a series of lovers who would pay for her housing.
But then a few months ago she was arrested for prostitution. That put a scare in her — that and threatening mobile messages from a former lover — so she's trying to go it alone.
"I could never imagine that I'd reach this point," said 38-year-old Samar, who lived a middle-class life back in Syria with a husband who has disappeared since his arrest by Syrian troops.
Syrian women and girls are growing more vulnerable to sexual exploitation in Lebanon as their exile drags out and poverty increases, relief workers say. Some women are driven into outright prostitution. Others like Samar engage in what relief workers call survival sex, striking up sexual relationships with men who can provide rent or food. With Syrian women seen as vulnerable, they face sexual harassment in the streets and exploitation by bosses, landlords and charity workers on whom they rely, as described by more than a dozen refugee women interviewed by The Associated Press.
Some mothers push daughters in their early teens into marriage, either because they can't afford to care for them or because they hope a husband will protect them, only to have the girls abused by their much older husbands.
Women and children make up 80 percent of the 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They are crammed into cheap apartments, garages and unfinished buildings in towns around the country. The poorest live in informal tent encampments that dot the countryside.
Measures of the extent of sexual exploitation are difficult to come by since women are reluctant to come forward with complaints of abuse for fear of stigma.
But in one sign of their vulnerability and desperation, prostitution has increased significantly in Lebanon, said a police officer in the country's vice squad. As of July, 255 people, mostly Syrian women, have been arrested this year on prostitution charges, more than the 205 who were arrested during all of 2013, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with police regulations.
Women typically charge $7 to $10 for sex — a sign that it's out of desperation, the officer said. "Most of them have children, and they say, It's to survive, it's to feed my children."
Saba Zariv, of the International Rescue Committee, which runs centers advising women of their rights, said the organization is hearing "more and more" accounts of sexual violence as its workers establish themselves in the refugee community. She said economic insecurity, lack of shelter and broken social networks "are all contributing factors for a woman's vulnerability and are risk factors for sexual violence."
One factor several relief workers pointed to was that rent aid which many refugees once received — usually about $200 a month — had dried up. That has left many women more vulnerable to exploitation as they seek housing and try to cover costs.
At a center run by the International Rescue Committee, a group of 12 refugee women described how sexual harassment is a constant in their lives, on multiple levels — from tiny gestures in the street to outright exploitation. They spoke on condition they remain anonymous or be identified only by their first names because of the stigma connected to the abuse.
It begins in the encampments, where men sometimes peer into tents to see if women are alone. Two of the women who live in a camp in eastern Lebanon said a teen was raped in a field near her tent.
Several said that men — after realizing they are Syrian — had offered them money like prostitutes, as they waited for a bus. One woman said her friend fled the dentist after he kept sliding his hand down her shirt. He still charged her for the visit.
A landowner ordered refugee women working on his land to wear tighter clothes, said one woman. Eight women, earning $2.60 a day, were fired when they refused, she said. "They all have children to feed," she sighed. Many of the women said they were sexually harassed by men distributing aid from charities.
One of the women said she so feared for her 14-year-old daughter's safety that she pushed her into marriage, hoping a husband would protect her.
"What can I do?" the woman wept. "It's hard, but I can't protect her."
But such marriages often turn abusive. Manal, a refugee girl in northern Lebanon, told the AP she was married at 15 to a 23-year-old man. Her impoverished family of seven lives in a single room in a building crammed with refugees. Her parents couldn't care for her, and she wanted to marry, she said.
Her husband began beating her soon after — once because she was using a mobile phone.
Manal was reluctant to talk about the reasons for other beatings, saying only: "I was afraid, I didn't know him and I had never sat in the same corner with a man before."
But a social worker present at the interview said Manal was beaten after refusing to do sexual acts that she saw as degrading. The social worker requested anonymity, because identification would affect her ability to work with sexual violence victims.
A month later, after another beating, Manal ran away. Her husband snatched back the gold he had given her as a wedding gift and burned her clothes.
"He left me with nothing," Manal said.
Many of the women complained of the reputation Syrian refugee women are burdened with in Lebanon. Umm Jamil, a 44-year-old widow living in the northern Lebanese village of Halba, said she was falsely accused of prostitution when police confused her for another woman they were searching for. She was arrested but quickly released without charge. But she said the humiliation gives her constant nightmares.
"I was dragged like a criminal, like a woman who is — " she burst into tears before finishing her sentence.
Samar, the 38-year-old woman living in another northern Lebanese town, described her ordeals with the series of men who paid her rent. Though released after her arrest, she could still face prosecution on prostitution charges. She's now living in the apartment of a friend, after severing contact with her last lover. She fears another former lover who has been sending her threatening texts will harm her.
"I did all this to keep the standards that I was used to," Samar said. "Now I just want to care for my children."
Days after Samar was interviewed, her social worker told the AP that Samar had been thrown out of her friend's apartment after the landlord demanded more rent.
Samar had since moved in with a new male friend.