Women Bear Brunt of Refugee Crisis says new report

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A new study published today by the international aid agency, Oxfam and the Beirut-based ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality finds that women are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis with the majority of the women interviewed saying they had resorted to desperate measures to survive.

Many women are regularly going hungry so their children and husbands can eat. Around 90 per cent of women interviewed said they regularly skip meals because there is simply not enough food to go round.

The report, Shifting Sands, studies the different pressures facing men and women refugees from Syria living in Lebanon and finds that the roles of both women and men refugees have changed.

According to the report, women are facing increasing domestic violence as their husbands struggle to cope and lash out at their wives. Many Syrian men refugees feel under pressure because they feel unable to fulfil their traditional role as family providers and protectors. Greatly reduced employment opportunities mean that families are reliant on humanitarian assistance, such as food coupons and cash support for rent, and men end up feeling they are letting their families down.

Colette Fearon, Oxfam’s Syria Response Manager, said: “Life has been turned upside down for the men, women and children who have been forced to flee. But many refugee women are showing courage, strength and organisational skills as they struggle against the odds to rebuild life for their families and hold things together.

The stress of living as refugees is tearing many families apart. Many simply don’t have enough to eat – and husbands and wives who never used to argue now row each day. The pressures are mounting and people are pushed to extremes. War can bring out the worst in people and we heard worrying reports of rising domestic violence from the refugees we spoke to.”

While many hoped to find comparative calm after fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria, the refugees interviewed say they and their families now face a future of uncertainty and fear for their health and personal safety.

Outside the home, some widows or unmarried women say they live in fear of kidnapping, robbery, attacks and sexual harassment and this fear for their personal safety was often restricting their movement.

ABAAD Gender Equality Programme Coordinator, Roula Masri said: “Despite generous assistance from host communities in Lebanon, there are growing tensions in communities where there are a high number of refugee arrivals, making the lives of women much harder.

“Syrian women refugees avoid going out now that they are in Lebanon because of security concerns and fear of sexual harassment. Some widows even publicly pretend their husbands are still alive back in Syria because they don’t want to reveal how alone and vulnerable they really are. Women, girls, boys and men have different needs, face different threats, and have different skills and aspirations.

“Understanding and responding to these gender differences and inequalities will improve the effectiveness of a humanitarian response and this must be made an urgent priority by all agencies.”

Some families interviewed said they are being forced to resort to extreme ways to cope with the financial pressures they are under. A number of parents talked about giving daughters in marriage for financial reasons or to make them safer. Though concerns have been raised about the age at which girl refugees are being married off, it was not unusual for a girl to be married before the age of 18 in Syria before the conflict.

The report found that a decent education is becoming increasingly out of grasp for children, with both boys and girls finding it hard to go to school, particularly after the age of 11 where an important majority of children have simply dropped out.

Some parents are keeping their boys out of school and getting them to do poorly-paid work because the family income is so desperately stretched. Others are reported preferring to keep their girls at home to do the housework, rather than allow them to attend mixed Lebanese schools. In Lebanon, only one in four child refugees who have fled from Syria are in school due to space limitations and language barriers as many schools teach through English.

Even before the crisis, many women in Syria were subject to discrimination, both in law and in practice. However, women’s experiences as refugees in Lebanon might have an impact on their long-term ability to achieve social and economic independence, to have a role in political participation, and to claim their rights as equal citizens.  

Although many women interviewed feel that they have lost their female identity, and are unhappy with new responsibilities, others felt that taking on new roles has created a sense of empowerment, which – with the right support – may offer opportunities for increasing women’s decision making and power longer term.

The new report offers detailed and practical guidance on how the humanitarian response to the crisis could better support men, women, boys and girls, and how aid should be appropriate to their different needs.

“Humanitarian crises almost always affect women and men differently and nowhere is this more true than in the crisis in Syria, where preexisting inequalities make even worse the situation of refugee women in Lebanon. Depressed and frustrated men release their anger on their families, parents are reluctant to allow their daughters out of the house, even to go to school and teenage girls are married to older men to provide support to their families.  We need to step up our support to these families to ease the pressure and help them cope,” says Oxfam Canada Executive Director Robert Fox.

For the humanitarian response to have maximum impact for refugee populations in Lebanon, gender analysis should be built into all stages of programming and across all sectors. There is a need for closer co-ordination of different responses between agencies, the Lebanese government and the UN, through sector groups and international NGO co-ordination.

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For more information contact:

Katia Gianneschi
Media Relations
Oxfam Canada


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