Millions of Syrian refugees have fled to places safer than home.
But once refuge is found, life isn’t always peaceful.
As new arrivals seek hope, security and opportunity, they also face unfamiliar culture, surroundings and new challenges. In particular, for many women and girl refugees, exploitation, abuse and sexual harassment is a daily threat from both inside and outside the family unit.
The Anti-Violence Project based in Lebanon tackles gender-based violence against refugees, in particular women and girls. Women and girl refugees face sexual abuse at every stage of their journey, including the place where they arrive. This is why Plan International has made protecting them a priority in its global response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Life in Lebanon
Lebanon is a small country with a population of less than 5 million yet it hosts between 1.2 and 1.5 million refugees from Syria as well as a large, long-term population of Palestinians. This is causing extensive stress on newly arrived refugees, as well as local Lebanese host communities. Refugees are living in almost every district in the country, but the highest numbers and most vulnerable refugees tend to be in the poorest areas.
It’s not easy for refugees living in Lebanon. Once they register as a refugee, they must also sign a commitment not to work – however they still need to pay for rent, food, and medical supplies. This financial burden contributes to stress. 80% of the refugee population suffer from depression and mental health problems.
Refugees live in poor and cramped conditions, often with several families sharing tents or apartments. Many face economic pressures, and fear for the safety of their daughters. Parents are often left with little choice but to remove their daughters from school to relieve the family of schooling costs. As a result, they are at risk of child labour, child marriage and early motherhood.
the Protection Project
For greater strategic impact, Plan International Australia has partnered with International Medical Corps, to help men, boys, women and girls affected by violence. The project targets women and girls in particular who are experiencing poverty, female-headed households, and women and girls with disabilities. It also targets men and boys to tackle the stress and frustration associated with not being able to fulfil the traditional role of the family provider. With studies showing that most gender based violence is perpetrated in the home and by those closest to victims, involving men and boys in the program is essential to create lasting impact and change.
The project improves access to services, expands case management services to vulnerable women and establishes safe spaces in the community. Men and boys are engaging in stress and anger management sessions, and listening and counselling activities.
“We simply cannot give up”
Programs Director Dave Husy has just returned from Lebanon, where he spoke to Syrian refugee women about violence against them.
I’m sitting in a room of women discussing the very serious issue of early marriage. Most of the women are Syrian refugees and many of their stories are similar, and tragic. It is the story of despair, with families facing increasingly deteriorating financial circumstances and increasing vulnerability. For some, their conditions have become so desperate they feel they are no longer able to afford to support - nor protect - their daughters, and these women painfully acknowledged they have arranged marriages to older men. If it is painful for them to tell, it is heart wrenching for us who listen. Lena, the facilitator, artfully guides the discussion toward potential solutions and how each participant can support each other. “We cannot simply give up, we need to help each other to cope”, she urges.
This discussion group is one of a series trying to assist Lebanese and Syrian families to manage the stresses of their lives, and the risks of gender based violence. Included in these sessions are themes dealing with anger management, sexual harassment, and self-care. They are complemented by individual counselling and case work undertaken by facilitators and support professionals like Lena. The support is urgently needed. By Lena’s estimate over 80% of Syrian women suffer severe depression as a result of the trauma of war, dislocation, and poverty and struggle to cope with the basic routine of life and family. Children in these families face health problems too, with many having respiratory and nutrition conditions. These will worsen as winter closes in.
“When I left Syria, the situation there was bad. Now that I’m here I still miss everything in Syria. I miss the land, I miss my people. I miss my relatives. I miss my home. Being a girl living here, we are always afraid of going out and being exposed to harassment or robbery.”
Beyaan, 17, is a student at a Plan International-supported school in Egypt.