Having spent the last eleven months in Amman, Jordan, I have witnessed a great deal of social upheaval. Large portions of the Jordanian population are struggling to cope with the multiple impacts that regional crises, such as the ongoing displacement of Syria’s population following its revolution in 2011, are having. What caught my attention the most, however, were the issues that women must face daily in Jordanian society as a result of cultural attitudes and traditional values.
Syria’s female refugees, who now make up the majority of the country’s exodus, are facing great adversity in all countries in which they have sought safety. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recently put their number at approximately 1.5 million[i] and are monitoring the situation closely – for the host of new challenges, which are often rooted in gender and exploitation, are becoming just as destructive as the conflict that they thought they had left behind.
Their plights have not gone unnoticed by humanitarian organizations, with the UNHCR publishing a concerning report in July – ‘Woman Alone’ [ii] – on the situation of Syrian female heads of households. As other humanitarian groups scramble to assist these women in crisis, the numbers in need of assistance continue to increase every day.
The three-year Syrian conflict took shape after the popular Syrian anti-government protests turned ugly during early 2011. It created the largest humanitarian crisis of this century; in total, the UNCHR now classes 2,966,798[iii] people as being of ‘concern’. The world has watched as government forces, moderate opposition groups and more extreme factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State (Da’esh), have all engaged in a relentless pursuit for control of the different regions of Syria, with women and children frequently finding themselves caught in the middle. As a result, many have fled – not wanting to become a casualty or, worse yet, pawns in the brutal conflict – making the arduous journeys to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. But as refugee populations continue to rise, these women and children are becoming more vulnerable to mistreatment and lower standards of life.
Money, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation
One of the most disarming factors for Syrian women is the lack of money at their disposal. In many cases, their finances have been exhausted in trying to set themselves up in the urban areas of foreign countries. In January, I spoke with a number of Syrian refugee families in East Amman, and whilst each family member acknowledged economic hardships, urban life was widely preferred to that of the refugee camps – where crime, such as rape[iv], is common. But with no work (the UNHCR report estimates that almost four in five women are not in paid employment) many are unable to easily afford the urban accommodation in which they reside, and debts rapidly accumulate. In some instances, male landlords, employers and even charity workers[v] have taken advantage of this, using debt as leverage in order to sexually exploit such women.
Even for those women whose spouses or other male relatives are still present, instances of domestic violence sadly still occur [vi]. With many Syrian refugee families feeling stigmatised within their host communities, blamed for fuelling ‘downward wage pressures’[vii] and escalating housing prices, it is increasingly difficult for male members of the household to find good employment or cheap accommodation[viii]. Back in Syria, men were often the head providers for the family. Now, whether they choose to live in the camps where there is no work, or urban areas where there is not enough work to go around, many are left feeling frustrated and useless – and in many instances, the stress of this is manifesting itself in the form of gender-based, domestic harassment and violence.
For many refugee women, speaking out against issues such as domestic abuse and sexual exploitation is near impossible. As the UN Development Programme (UNDP) notes: there is a stigma[ix] associated with ‘sexual violence in general’ in the Middle East, with many victims thus remaining silent about such abuse. Indeed, for those who do speak out, claiming to be victims of rape or any other type of sexual exploitation, they often face backlash – such as being told that it will bring shame upon their family[x]. Because of this, it is difficult to gain a clear picture of how many women are at risk – and unfortunately the numbers may be higher than the UNDP has been able to record.
Unwilling to speak out, personal safety is endangered
But there is not just stubbornness to report instances of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation. Troublingly, it runs much further than this – and this is something I regularly came across during time I spent with Syrian urban refugees in Amman. One female widower, Shurouq*, from Daraa, did not have enough money to see to it that correct medical treatment was available for her mother who had recently burnt her hand when a pan of oil caught fire in their kitchen. As I talked with Shurouq in her bare apartment, located in a dusty suburb on the Eastern fringes of the capital not far from the civil airport, it was clear that her mother was still in a lot of pain. When Shurouq asked her to tell us what had happened, she did not say much, but winced as she pulled back the tea towel that had stuck to her burn. The UNHCR representative, with whom I was accompanying on this home visit, suggested that she acquire additional medicine, but the two women looked eager to shrug it off. Either they did not have enough money for a hospital visit, or their resilience needed in moving their lives to Jordan had extended to ignoring serious injuries.
The stubbornness to seek further medical treatment may have also been down to the social disapproval that single women encounter, should they wish to venture out of their homes alone. Leaving the house to buy medicine, without a male counterpart present, can lead to harassment by other men. Najwa, a Syrian woman whose marriage fell apart after she was raped by her neighbour, is distraught at the situation. ‘Any free movement I take might be seen as consenting to sex,’ she said[xi]. Najwa has had to change her accommodation three times because of harassment by other men.
Additional dilemmas remain for young Syrian female refugees. As a result of their financial poverty, vulnerability to sexual harassment and poor living conditions, they are often left with little options for protection. ‘Sutra’ marriages[xii] (a marriage for protection) are thus becoming more common: the prospect of one’s daughter marrying young, as early as 15 years old for example, is preferable to her being sexually assaulted at night in a refugee camp. But too often it emerges that such marriages are affairs that last a few hours or days – the dowry essentially serving as a payment for sex[xiii]. The individuals responsible for exploiting these teenagers, according to a US State Department report on Syrian human trafficking[xiv], are often ‘wealthy men from Gulf countries [who] pay thousands of dollars to matchmakers to marry teenage Syrian girls’. The UNHCR and other aid organisations are attempting to overcome this manipulation of the socially important ‘honour’ in family values, by running focus sessions that allow women to discuss their issues with each other, and establishing a strong support network so that those most vulnerable do not feel alone. But there is still a long way to go, so embedded are many of the issues.
Mental health and disability
It should be noted that there are many other cases where men have not taken advantage of Syrian women, offering charity instead. One family, headed by a young mother – Zeinab* – told me of how a Qatari man was paying for her rented apartment in East Amman. He had not asked for anything in return. It was, it seemed, a gesture of charity.
However, as I chatted with Zeinab, she began to express her anxiety, revealing that the rent payments had only been agreed for one year. She simply did not know what would happen when the contract expired. And her anxiety went further than this. After her husband had been killed in Syria, she told me, she had lost much of the confidence she used to hold, and even leaving the house was a challenge. For a woman with an infant son to care and provide for, as well as English literature classes to attend at a local faith based charity, such fears were crippling. According to ‘Doctors of the World’, Syrians’ mental health is of great cause for concern[xv] – and yet remains a ‘silent crisis’. PTSD is a common sight, worryingly amongst children, as well as adults, and depression is a real danger to many of those who now feel in despair after leaving Syria. For Zeinab, her struggle was painfully visible as she spoke, her eyes often falling on her son as she sighed.
Though Zeinab’s child was healthy, there are many lone mothers who must care for disabled children, and, due to their displacement, this is now harder than it should be, especially if they choose to live outside of the refugee camps. 1,800 disabled people live in female-headed households, and the UNHCR report catalogues such a case: ‘Suha, 33, lives in Salt, Jordan, with her seven-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. She says her biggest challenge is the distance to treatment and the cost of transportation. Suha must take her to the hospital in Amman twice a week for physical therapy, and the journey is one and a half hours each way – requiring a bus and a taxi ride’.
The choice to live outside the refugee camps, where access to medical services for the handicapped is often easier, was made understandable to me when I spoke with another Syrian couple, who were also living in Amman. The husband, who was wheelchair bound due to an industrial accident that had claimed the use of his legs before the revolution, said that their lives in Zaatari had been unbearable. ‘I had to crawl through the mud at times,’ the husband iterated, ‘the ground was not suitable for wheelchairs’.
UN agencies have described at length how they are working to address the many situations faced by Syrian refugees, with special attention paid to women, and have offered guidelines on how other humanitarian organisations and governments can act in order to reduce the vulnerability of women. However, there is still much work to be done. The biggest challenge will be in overcoming the many taboos in society that women face, which prevent them from seeking help from outside their own support network, speaking out against sexual exploitation, or even leaving their own home alone in confidence.
In many parts of the world, where conflict and political instability exist, the fact is that women still remain under threat. Boko Haram routinely kidnap girls in Nigeria, the Islamic State are raping and selling Yezidis and Christians into slavery in Iraq[xvi], and over the past three years, the Syrian Government has ‘threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and tortured’[xvii] female activists. All of this is done to break the spirit of the community and drum up a culture of fear and intimidation amongst a population for the purposes of submission and control. But although the situation is still depressing for Syrian female refugees, at least they have the hope that the tide may change; with increased action by aid and development agencies, and funding targets set, the dreams of Syrian refugees – to reclaim the lives they once had – may eventually be realised.
*The women’s names used in this piece are not real – they have been changed to protect their identities.