Aid Community Facing Challenges in Helping Abused Syrian Women, Girls

BY Larisa Epatko  November 16, 2012 at 1:50 PM EDT


A Syrian refugee in Fekha, Lebanon, in August. Photo by Greg Matthews/International Rescue Committee.

As Syrian refugees continue to pour out of the country, aid agencies are boosting their efforts to help women and girls who have experienced abuse.

Syrians seeking a safer place to wait out the violent revolution in their country often encounter a whole other set of challenges in their new homes. With little to their names and a lack of resources at their disposal, tensions can run high, and women and children sometimes bear the brunt, said Elizabeth Pender, emergency technical adviser of the International Rescue Committee’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment Unit.

While assessing refugees’ need over the summer in Lebanon, Pender said she was struck by how much violence women and girls had experienced, whether it was rape or seeing family members killed in Syria, or an uptick in domestic abuse and the potential for the endangerment of young girls in these new desperate circumstances.

“Especially in places like Lebanon, one of the coping mechanisms in families lacking resources is to marry their daughters at very young ages to men with money in exchange for things like reduced rent or free accommodation,” said Pender.

In addition, because of the heightened stress and anxiety in the new environment, “you have an increase in husbands beating their wives and a generalized increase in violence in the home,” she said.

But when women and girls try to get help, they might get in trouble at home, Pender explained. Particularly survivors of rape “are seen as being dishonored,” she said. So the IRC is setting up centers in Lebanon — two have opened and two more are on the way — to provide generalized services for families, and specific programs like health care and emotional support on the side.

“We have to be very careful about providing services and make sure that any woman and girl who come forward can do so safely and confidentially,” she said.

Getting help to those who need it is particularly challenging in Lebanon, where refuges are spread out within the local communities — either living with host families or trying to make-do in abandoned buildings and tents — rather than being clustered in camps.

The IRC has mobile teams to help reach those people and is working with national and local grassroots groups to build trust and spread the word about their services. Its main partner in Lebanon is Abaad, an organization that focuses on gender equality, said Pender. Abaad provides an established network for IRC to piggyback, and Abaad’s staff in turn gets specialized training in providing emergency services, which is different than its original mission, she said.

The programs to help women are newer in Lebanon than in other countries housing Syrian refugees, including Iraq and Jordan, which have more established refugee communities as a result of the Iraq war.

The IRC has four international staff in Lebanon and recently hired six national staff in partnership with Abaad to work specifically on women’s programs. Pender said she anticipates between 100 to 150 women and girls will come to the centers each week — not necessarily all victims of violence — and that number likely will grow. An estimated 100,000 Syrians are in Lebanon alone (about 89,000 of them have registered with the United Nations), with more coming in everyday.

“Syrian women are very strong,” she added. “They’ve started to cultivate community-based support networks” and aid organizations like hers are hoping to help them along the way.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Margaret Warner reports from Turkey on how the conflict in Syria is impacting the region. View more of our World and Syria coverage, and follow us on Twitter: