Sanj Srikanthan/The IRC
A conservative estimate puts the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 40,000 over half of whom are women and children. In many cases families have fled Syria without their men who are fighting in the civil conflict there. The stories we’ve heard talking to Syrian women in Lebanon are truly horrific. Rape and torture have always been talked of in the media, but not in the detailed accounts given by the women’s groups we have spoken to here. One account told of how women and girls were raped in front of their male relatives as a warning not to join the conflict. Daughters of local leaders in Syria were abducted raped and murdered, their naked bodies dumped in the main square of their villages. Other reports tell of girls being raped as they try to cross the border into Lebanon and are intercepted.
Syrian refugees carry both the emotional and physical scars of the trauma they have suffered, but there is little that is being done for them in Lebanon. They have escaped the brutality of Syria and arrived in a country without the infrastructure to host large refugee populations. Health services are barely available even for those who can pay, and this is not many. Many have managed to find simple accommodation in host communities, but as the conflict drags on these host families cannot afford to give free housing and many Syrian women and children are forced to beg or work long hours in the field, even during Ramadan when they cannot eat or drink during the day. In some cases families are selling their daughters into marriage with wealthy men in order to protect them from this life, and an uncertain future in a country that is not their own.
The plight of women in Lebanon is particularly tragic as the culture here does not give much weight to families who do not have adult men to speak for them. And yet many women are compelled to go out to seek means to support their families, all the while not knowing what has happened to their men in Syria. Lebanon has an average income per person which is two and half times as high as that of Syria before the conflict. If a Syrian woman in Lebanon does not have money she will have to find other ways to pay the rent for whatever accommodation is obtainable.
Even if they are able to find a livelihood in Lebanon while they wait to see the future of Syria, so many carry the emotional scars of what they have experienced in their homeland. Women’s groups that we visited in Lebanon offer a chance to unburden themselves and to receive professional counselling. But these services were few even before Syrian refugees arrived in Lebanon, and are now stretched thin. Pre and neo natal care is expensive in Lebanon and many Syrian women are giving birth prematurely due to the trauma they have experienced on their journey. Hospitals near the Syrian border in Lebanon are reporting babies born weighing as little as 1kg, when the average weight of a newborn should be three times that. The reality is that there is not enough support for refugees in Lebanon, and the humanitarian work that is being done simply does not meet the needs of a growing number of refugees.
When you read news reports of the latest number of dead in Syria, it is worth remembering that whatever that figure is, as many as 20 times that number will have fled with little food or money into countries like Lebanon. They have saved themselves from one horror and are now left with the memories of what they experienced and witnessed, with no means to support their traumatised families, waiting to see when they can return home.
The International Rescue Committee has interviewed women and girls from Syria now sheltering in Lebanon, who chose to share their stories with us. The IRC is already working with Syrian victims of violence against women and girls in Jordan. With added funding the IRC can expand to provide urgent health, psychological and social support to women and girls in Lebanon.