Alone and exposed, Syrian refugee women fight for survival

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 8 July 2014 07:02 GMT

Syrian women, fleeing the violence from the Syrian town of Qara, carry their babies as they queue to register to get help from relief agencies at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

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One out of four refugee families in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are headed by women

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -  More than 145,000 Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – one in four of all households – are headed by women facing a lone fight for survival, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.

Life is a daily struggle to make ends meet for these Syrian refugee women as they battle to maintain their dignity and care for their families in run-down overcrowded homes, insecure makeshift shelters and tents, UNHCR said in its report “Woman Alone: The fight for survival by Syria’s refugee women”.

Nearly four in five of the 2.9 million people who fled the civil war in Syria are women and children, and the numbers are growing daily, UNHCR said.

Many of the women live under the threat of violence or exploitation, and their children face mounting trauma and distress, according to the report, based on interviews in early 2014 with 135 refugee women heading households in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

“For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship,” said U.N. refugee chief António Guterres.

“They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety, and are being treated as outcasts for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war," Guterres said in a statement. "It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything.”

Forced to take sole responsibility for their families after their men were killed, captured, or otherwise separated, they are caught in a spiral of hardship, isolation and anxiety.

The number one difficulty reported by the women is a lack of resources, the report said. Most of the women are struggling to pay rent, put food on the table and buy basic household items.

Many have reached the end of their savings and have even resorted to selling off their wedding rings. Only one-fifth have paid work, and many find it hard to get a job, or have too much else on their plate.


Maha is a 32-year-old mother of two whose house Daraa was destroyed by a bomb in December 2012. She fled to Lebanon and now lives in Beirut in a concrete room with a dirt floor near a motorway underpass.

Maha works intermittently as a housekeeper but struggles to pay the $200 rent and is already $400 in debt.

“There is the dirt, the noise, everything,” she said in the report. “It’s like living on the street.”

Funding for Syrian refugees is not coming in fast enough, said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. The Syria Regional Response Plan, the main funding vehicle for refugees, is only 36 percent funded for 2014, according to U.N. data.

“It really is a catastrophic situation,” Edwards told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The women are a very vulnerable group in the broader refugee population – it’s very much a crisis within a crisis.”

Many of the women used to live in households in Syria where men where the main breadwinners. “Now, they’re suddenly forced into this new situation, feeling very alone and exposed,” said Edwards.

UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie said protection of refugee women was paramount. “Syrian refugee women are the glue holding together a broken society. Their strength is extraordinary, but they are struggling alone", Jolie said.

The pressure on host countries is growing as 100,000 new refugees register every month in neighbouring countries, according to UNHCR.

Lebanon, a country of 4 million residents, recently marked the arrival of the 1 millionth Syrian refugee, putting pressure on domestic resources and leading sometimes to tensions with host communities.

In Jordan, which hosts 600,000 Syrian refugees, 80 percent live in urban areas, placing significant pressure on the country’s scarce resources and labour market and fuelling resentment against the growing number of Syrians.

Zahwa, a refugee in Jordan, says she was even harassed by refugees when collecting food coupons. “I was living in dignity, but now no one respects me because I’m not with a man,” she said in the report.

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