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Syria's Isolated Refugee Women Face a Dangerous and Humiliating Battle

A UN report shows that one in four Syrian refugee households is headed by a single woman, facing daily physical and financial hardship.
July 8, 2014, 7:35pm
Photo via AP/Alessandro Rota

One in four Syrian refugee households is now headed solely by a woman, according to a new United Nations report detailing the hardships and dangers they face while struggling to provide for their families.

More than 145,000 of the roughly half a million Syrian refugee families displaced since the war began in 2011 have a single woman as decision-maker and provider, UNHCR said today. They also released a study based on interviews with 135 Syrian women in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan in February and April 2014.

Outside of traditional family structures, existence is precarious. Many of the women interviewed had previously depended on the men in their lives for physical and financial safety. Now, due to death, imprisonment, or displacement, they are alone in a foreign country and cut off from their communities and traditional sources of support. The testimony gathered by the report’s authors reveals the women are struggling to even provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, and healthcare for their families.

Accommodation is often haphazard, unsafe and unsanitary, as well as being extremely overcrowded. Food, especially anything fresh, is scarce and a third of respondents said that they didn't have enough to eat at all.

'A woman alone in Egypt is prey to all men.'

This is partly a result of their struggle for any form of income. Just one in five of the women interviewed have jobs — despite many being highly educated — and the same proportion again receive money from relatives. Many of the rest rely on assistance from aid agencies, charities, and generous locals, although a third had no money coming in at all. Some spoke of selling off everything they owned — even wedding rings — and said they had long exhausted pre-war savings.

Those lucky enough to have jobs are often forced to work in the informal sector. In the three countries where research was carried out, formal employment opportunities for Syrian refugees are slim due to restrictions on the right to work. In the shadow economy, however, there is less protection from exploitation and abuse.

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“For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship,” said Anto?nio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety, and are being treated as outcasts for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war. It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything.”

Abuse was not only a problem in employment. The women interviewed by UNHCR described sexual harassment in shops, on the streets, while using public transport, and even while collecting aid. The problem was particularly acute in Egypt, where sexual violence is at epidemic levels. Rawan, a woman in her 40s who lives with her elderly mother in Alexandria has moved address four times due to sexual harassment by landlords. Diala, who also lives in Alexandria, said: “A woman alone in Egypt is prey to all men.”

'Any person who’s offering me help wants a sexual service in return. Even the simplest help means that I have offer to a sexual service.'

This problem is widespread, however. Some refugee women in different countries reported that their landlords had offered money or free accommodation in return for sexual favors. Others said they were harassed by other refugees and that members of local charities who were supposed to help them had instead tried to take advantage of them or their daughters.

Najwa, who fled from Syria to Lebanon, told the report authors that she had been raped by her neighbor. “I am being abused because I am living on my own,” she said. “Any person who’s offering me help wants a sexual service in return. Even the simplest help means that I have offer to a sexual service.”

She has experienced sexual harassment frequently in Lebanon and says she has moved home three times because of it. “Each time I move, men are trying to make me do something I don’t agree with. Any free movement I take might be seen as consenting to sex.”

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This ever-present threat contributed to a climate of fear in which a third of interviewees were too scared to even leave their homes.

“Women affected by the conflict in Syria continue to be easy targets of sexual violence and harassment in the countries of asylum, in addition to the plight of leaving your own country and being dispossessed of everything," said UNHCR Deputy Representative in Cairo, Elizabeth Tan.

Whole families have suffered too. There has been a huge impact on the children of the women spoken to by UNHCR. Some of have been forced to get jobs. One interviewee, Nahla, said of two of her children work — her eight-year-old son in a grocery store and her 16-year-old earns $5 a day at a bakers.

UNHCR said that despite the more than 150 organizations providing support for Syrian refugee women alongside local initiatives, more help is needed. It urged donors to provide more funds, and for governments and aid agencies to do more to assist them. The Syrian conflict has now forced 2.8 million people from the country. So far, almost four fifths of those have been women and children. With refugee numbers now forecast to reach 3.6 million by the end of this year, there are likely to be many, many more in need.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck