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Supporting Syrian refugee women

The International Rescue Committee is expanding its Syrian refugee response to support one of the most vulnerable segments of the growing refugee community: women and girls.

The IRC works to support Syrian refugee women. Photo: Ned Holt / IRC

Three IRC emergency assessments completed this year (two in Jordan and one in Lebanon) indicate that women are being directly targeted by rape and other forms of sexual violence, and that that for them, the dangers do not end once they’ve fled the country. 

I recently sat down with the IRC’s women’s protection and empowerment coordinator in Jordan, Melanie Megevand, to discuss the crisis, and the IRC’s response.

Q.  Do we have any definitive figures or evidence on how extensive attacks on women and girls are in Syria?

A.  We don’t have a concrete answer, mainly because the IRC is focusing on women and girls once they’ve arrived in Jordan and Lebanon, and we rely on what they tell us. What we do know from the three assessments we’ve completed is that reports of sexual violence — and of rape in particular — have been frequently reported by women and girls, and even by men within Syrian households. It has been mentioned as one of the main reasons why families have been fleeing Syria. But while we don’t have definitive numbers, we do have qualitative measurements. Sexual violence has been frequently reported in our focus group discussions, and that is something that is usually quite rare to get so early when we have not yet established trust and rapport with refugees. And again, the fact that even men are speaking about this in a culture where it’s taboo to discuss these things is quite telling. It gives us the impression that there are very high levels of sexual violence in Syria.

Q.  Can you determine that violence against women in Syria is driving people out of the country?

A.  Our assessments in both Lebanon and Jordan were strikingly similar. Sexual violence in Syria was a recurring them among both men and women, and fear of more violence prompted many families to flee Syria.

Q.  But the challenges aren’t over once they arrive in another country?

A. We have a tendency to think once refugees leave their country of origin, they enter a safe place, and we know that is not the case—particularly with GBV (gender-based violence). GBV occurs prior to conflicts, during conflicts, and after conflicts.  As for the latter? Women and girls who’ve fled Syria have reported high levels of domestic violence or what we call “intimate partner violence.” There are also higher risks of exploitation and forced marriage.

Q.  Would you explain what you mean by exploitation and forced marriage in this context?

A. Exploitation often takes the form of what we call survival sex, the idea being that it is not based on consent. Women and girls are forced to engage in this to meet needs that cannot meet otherwise. For example, there might be an exchange of sex for access to food or hygiene items. There is exploitation of urban refugees for housing, and shelter. Forced marriages often mean early marriages, where we’re speaking of girls under the age of 18 getting married.  Syrian refugees tell us this is done as a survival mechanism. It might be used to protect a daughter against the threat of rape; if she is single, rape is a greater threat. There’s an economic aspect as well. If the broader family can’t adequately provide for each household member, there might be pressure to marry off a daughter. From our perspective this is in no way a choice, because their decisions are based on survival. They must do whatever they can to meet their basic needs so are forced into this when there is no other way. And when you are forced it is not consent — it’s not a choice.

Q.  Are there support systems in place?

A.  They’re insufficient. There are a number of systems that existed prior to the Syrian influx for Jordanians and for Iraqi refugees, but these services aren’t coordinated, and there aren’t specialised services in place to specifically address the levels of gender-based violence we’re hearing about.

Q.  So what do these women and girls need most?

A.  We want to get to those in need by using social workers, who can identify what services are most needed based on the incidents reported, and what services a survivor would like to and need to receive in terms of health, psychosocial services, but also economic support they need in order to recover. We need to take a holistic approach to recovery, and we need to move quickly. The trust-building process takes time, and needs to be done in a safe and private space. We intend to start this process in Jordan and Lebanon in the coming weeks.

Q.  Safe spaces are something we often talk about at the IRC in terms of women’s recovery needs. Would you explain what they are and why they are so important in this context?

A.  What is really needed in the type of emergency situation we’re seeing is a physical space where women and girls can safely and freely meet. It should be a place where they can access information, meet one another, and discuss common issues. Women are typically in charge of the household in this region, so there’s a great burden when they arrive in a new country in terms of orientation. Where do you go to get food? Where do you go if your child is sick? Where do you go for education? Safe spaces also provide a place where women can discuss issues that they cannot freely discuss in public. They enable them to create support groups. For instance, here in Jordan at the Zaatari tent camp, Syrian women say they don’t have a private place where they can cry. And these are things that women must have. They need to have space where they can feel comfortable to be able to release their emotions and to be able to begin to address them.

Q.  Is there enough of a focus on gender-based violence in refugee crises?

A.  People don’t realise that this is lifesaving. People typically think what is most needed at the onset of a catastrophe is shelter, food and water. But GBV prevents women and girls from accessing these services. It’s an essential need that must be provided from the start and throughout, because changing social norms and reducing levels of GBV is a long term project, but it’s not something that you can leave until later. It needs to be addressed from the onset.