18 June 2019: Girls tell of violence, isolation and forced marriage in refugee communities

Australian researchers have revealed that girls living in refugee communities in Beirut, Lebanon, face pervasive gender-based violence, with child marriage rising as a means of protection

A report by leading girls’ rights agency Plan International Australia and Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security research centre - Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices from Beirut – tells of girls’ struggles, fears and hopes for the future.

Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, which includes a recent influx of 1.5 million fleeing the Syrian civil war crisis, as well as Palestinian families who have been in the country since 1949.

Based on a survey and group discussions with 400 girls aged 10 to 19 and their communities in three locales in and around Beirut, the report found:

  • More than half of girls surveyed said girls of their age face physical violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment and emotional or verbal abuse where they live.
  • The primary concern of girls across all three sites and nationality groups was gender-based violence, including sexual harassment.
  • Numerous girls spoke of being harassed or chased by men and boys, and some were concerned about being kidnapped or raped.
  • Six per cent of girls surveyed reported being married, and four per cent were engaged.
  • Some 69 per cent of girls said they felt unsafe travelling around the city alone during the day, while 87 per cent felt unsafe at night time.
  • More than half of girls surveyed said that they feel isolated and lonely always, most of the time, or sometimes.
  • School attendance plummets when girls reach 14 year old – 80 per cent of 10-14 year olds regularly attend school, compared to just 39 per cent of 15-19 year olds.

The girls reported witnessing high levels of sexual harassment, threats and violence in their communities, and spoke of being harassed or chased by men and boys when they ventured outside.

“We’re too afraid [to go out alone]. There are always drunk men who harass us and even the ones who aren’t drunk harass us,” an 18-year-old Syrian girl from Bourj Al Barajneh told researchers.

A 17-year-old girls from Bourj Hammoud said: “Some girls aren’t allowed out of the house, they stay stuck inside.”

“Recently I haven’t been able to walk on my own. There are a lot of boys that chase me,” a 17-year-old girl in Bourj Hammoud said.

Researchers found child marriage is becoming an increasingly significant issue for adolescent girls in some communities as a means of protection.

A 13-year-old Syrian girl in Bourj Al Barajneh said: “Some girls, their parents oblige them to leave school to get married. My friends all got married and now they have kids.

Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena called the report ‘deeply troubling’.

“The impact of conflict and displacement on girls is under-researched, but now this report has shed light on how teenage girls suffer great hardship in long-term refugee communities, which are violent and insecure,” said Ms Legena.

Mr Legena said adolescent girls face unique risks due to their gender and age. 

“The threat of sexual violence means many girls are being shut away in their homes, which limits their access to school, friendships and other social opportunities, and jeopardises their mental health. Child marriage is rising as a means of protection for parents who fear for their girls’ safety.”

Ms Legena said the report sought to amplify the voices of girls in Beirut, who, despite everything, are optimistic and ambitious about their futures.

“Girls spoke of wanting to contribute to their communities, and their ambitions to become lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Yet they are well aware of the barriers they face to education – girls are often the first to be removed from school when families face hardship and poverty.

“It is clear from the findings that while teenage girls have unique vulnerabilities, they are also significant agents in the everyday survival of their communities.

“There is a critical need for humanitarian programmes that protect adolescent girls, address their unique needs and challenges, and support in being agents of change.”

Plan International Australia is calling on the Australian Government to accelerate the development of a standalone action plan for ensuring our aid and foreign policy benefits adolescent girls as a particularly at-risk group.

The international aid agency is also calling for the government, United Nations and civil society actors in Lebanon, to address the causes of girls’ insecurity, and has made a number of recommendations, including:

  • Recognise adolescent girls’ unique needs and ensure their voices are included in the decision-making, design and implementation of humanitarian programmes.
  • Tackle the root causes of gender inequality at family, community and legislative levels.
  • Remove barriers that prevent girls from refugee communities from attending school.
  • Ensure girls have access to confidential healthcare, information about sexual and reproductive health rights, and safe spaces where they can meet, socialise and support their peers.

For editors

  • The report Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices from Beirut is the fourth in a series commissioned by Plan International and the only one to focus on adolescent girls who are refugees in a city. It draws on a survey and group discussions with adolescent girls and their communities in Beirut and its suburbs – Shatila, Bourj Al Barajneh and Bourj Hammoud, in October and November 2018.
  • Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world at 2.2 million. In 2014 UNHCR estimated that in Beirut alone there were 245,960 registered refugees: 11 per cent of the total population . Palestinian and Syrian • refugees are in the majority and include Palestinian families who have been in Lebanon since 1949.
  • Plan International has humanitarian programs in the Middle East, and works with partners in Lebanon to support girls, their families and communities. 

About Plan International

Plan International is a leading girls’ rights agency. We champion girls’ rights because we know that there is nowhere in the world where girls are treated as equals. We work alongside children, young people, supporters and partners to tackle the root causes of injustices facing girls and the most marginalised children. Plan International works in more than 75 countries to help create a just world that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. Our local office, Plan International Australia funds programs to support children in more than 25 countries, as well as sponsorship programs across the federation.