Displacement, unemployment and shifting gender roles in the Syrian community have fueled an issue that the World Health Organization has as a global epidemic: violence against women. While exact statistics are difficult to come by, it is clear that violence against Syrian women has risen in Jordan and Lebanon, particularly intimate partner violence (IPV), exploitation, survival sex and early marriage. At the core of female refugees’ vulnerability is the lack of income opportunities and security, which leads to financial insecurity and exposes vulnerable Syrians to exploitation.
One in four Syrian households in Jordan and Lebanon are headed by women who struggle to pay rent and buy food. There are few opportunities for Syrian refugees to work in Jordan or Lebanon, and the positions that are available often pay low wages, have poor working conditions and expose refugees to harassment. Host nations and the international community must do more to both prevent gender-based violence (GBV) and protect survivors of GBV. This would not only curb violence against women and assist Syrian refugees, but also promote development in local communities.
The economic hardships faced by Syrian refugees have led to a shift in gender roles and an increase in IPV. Syria is considered to have a patriarchal society, where men dominate all elements of society outside of the home and women are seen as homemakers. Now, however, Syrian men in Jordan and Lebanon are unable to fulfill their traditional role as breadwinner and protector of the family. The lack of job opportunities is leading to low self-esteem, severe stress and feelings of disempowerment. This has generated negative expressions of masculinity against women and children, resulting in an increase in IPV.
In Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian women often experience intense exploitation, particularly if they represent a vulnerable sector of society – whether a widow, single woman or an undocumented resident. A local Lebanese anti-harassment group called Say No to Violence estimates that two out of 10 Syrian women are subject to economic, social or sexual exploitation by landlords, employers, community members and aid distributors. Yet refugees often refrain from reporting such incidents because they mistrust security forces or fear reprisal for their lack of documentation. Research from the International Red Cross and ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality discovered that many refugees in Lebanon engaged in “survival sex” – exchanging sexual acts for food or money – to compensate for their lack of income. Such sexual exploitation, whether consensual or not, demonstrates the desperate financial situation that many refugees find themselves in.
Aid organizations have reported instances of child marriages in Jordan and Lebanon as a means to provide financial support to Syrian families. While this issue does merit concern, it is essential to note that early marriages are quite common in Syria; girls as young as 13 years old can be married if a judge authorizes the union and polygyny is legal. In 2011, 13 percent of girls in Syria were married under the age of 18. However, instances of early marriage appear to be on the rise for young girls in Jordan – from 12 percent in 2011 to 18 percent in 2012 and as high as 25 percent in 2013. Families are seeking husbands for their young daughters to alleviate the financial hardships of refugee life and to secure protection for the girl, altering the practice of early marriage among Syrian refugees and increasing the risks for young girls. First, 48 percent of early marriages in Jordan in 2012 involved a Syrian girl marrying a man 10 or more years older than her. When the age gap between the bride and groom is big, it minimizes the power, autonomy and status that a young woman has. Second, the majority of child marriages are unregistered in Jordan and all are illegal in Lebanon, meaning that the union is not recognized and the girl has no rights. Most of these marriages take place in a local mosque, without legal marriage certificates. Furthermore, the practice has shifted from a tradition to a coping mechanism to assist a family financially and provide girls with male protection.
Lastly, Syrian girls are more likely to be married quickly to men outside their community rather than to relatives or neighbors as was common in Syria, which has legal and social ramifications. In Jordan, businesses set up prospective grooms from the Gulf with young Syrian brides. Matches that emphasize financial stability rather than suitability or integrity increase the potential for sexual exploitation and abuse, as families are less likely to thoroughly assess a potential husband’s character and background. Aid organizations report that grooms often return the girl to her family after he tires of her, creating a form of sexual exploitation. Human rights organizations claim that many girls end up in prostitution or “pleasure marriages,” where the man divorces the girl after consummating the marriage. A U.N. survey found that one in 10 respondents knew at least one Syrian woman who had entered a “temporary marriage” since arriving in Jordan. These marriages are often short and include a one-time dowry payment to the girl’s male guardian. Typically, the woman is not granted the same rights as in a legal marriage, such as financial support for any children resulting from the marriage. In order to limit the vulnerability of Syrian women, the international community and host countries must increase funds for housing, health care, food and basic needs in order to ensure that women do not remain in exploitative situations due to a lack of options. The U.N. should work with host governments and NGOs to improve reporting mechanisms and guarantee a refugee’s safety by working with local authorities to ensure law enforcement is protecting communities and implementing security measures in public places that are frequented by both refugees and locals.
Income-assistance programs should be increased to prevent and reduce the prevalence of GBV. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) protection unit has utilized temporary measures such as cash-for-rent aid, which can assist in limiting the risks of GBV and negative coping strategies for women and girls. For instance, in the Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp, the U.N. has established a “cash for work” program that allows Syrian women with previous tailoring and hairdresser experience to work six hours a day. Named the Women and Girls Oasis, the tailoring workshop produces clothing for babies delivered in camp hospitals. The program hosts English classes, mosaic, handcrafts, drawing and hairdressing. Such centers not only offer income, but also provide a space for women to discuss taboo subjects such as GBV. Similar initiatives should be developed for urban refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Access to education is essential in curbing the instances of child marriage. Many parents are reluctant to allow girls to leave the home, let alone attend school, due to fear of harassment, cost or distance. In order to encourage families to keep their daughters in school and reduce the likelihood of early marriage, organizations should provide greater access to education by minimizing travel distances, ensuring security and providing incentives, such as transportation subsidies, books and food vouchers. Fostering economic opportunities after school will also demonstrate an alternative future for women and encourage girls to finish their education.
Treatment must be made available for survivors of GBV. In Jordan and Lebanon, discrimination and lack of information prevent women and girls from accessing treatment and services. Cultural norms, such as the necessity of a male companion when leaving the house, preclude many women from seeking aid. The U.N. found that 83 percent of survey respondents in Jordan were unaware that there were any services available for GBV victims. Communication mechanisms should be strengthened to inform refugees about access to aid and specialized services. ABAAD, UNHCR, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Danish Refugee Council opened Safe Shelters in three areas of Lebanon where refugees reside in order to provide a safe place for Syrians who are at risk or survivors of GBV. However, survivor services and psychological care remain scarce. Efforts to build more shelters and provide psychological support to victims of GBV should be increased. Counseling efforts should target all refugee communities in order to address the high levels of stress that fuel IPV, such as anger and stress management workshops for men. The use of mobile clinics that offer GBV services could assist in reaching remote areas to provide support for refugees.
Lastly, when developing policies to address these challenges, it is imperative to consider Syrian culture. Although early marriage is illegal in Lebanon, it is common in Syria. Women’s rights organizations argue that the prevalence of child marriage is the result of social prejudices against women rather than a lack of knowledge. While it is important to educate refugee families about the dangers associated with early marriage – i.e., the dangers of childbirth, increased barrier to education, greater likelihood of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and the lack of legal rights – community-based initiatives are needed to adjust these harmful social norms. Organizations should work with community stakeholders, such as religious leaders and faith-based groups, to develop culturally sensitive gender policies. Limiting the instances of GBV and providing services for survivors would improve the quality of life for Syrian women, further development in host communities and better the future of Syrian refugees as a whole.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on August 9, 2014.