Refugees from Syria struggling for survival as years of conflict take their toll, says new report

Published: 3rd September 2013

Research in Lebanon shows many families fled Syria because they feared for their lives, yet their safety and security remain under threat – with the majority feeling vulnerable in and outside the home.

A new study published today by the international aid agency, Oxfam and the Beirut-based ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality finds that women are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis with the majority of the women interviewed saying they had resorted to desperate measures to survive.

Many women are regularly going hungry so their children and husbands can eat. Around 90 per cent of women interviewed said they regularly skip meals because there is simply not enough food to go round.

The report, Shifting Sands, studies the different pressures facing men and women refugees from Syria living in Lebanon and finds that the roles of both women and men refugees have changed.

Increasing domestic violence

According to the report, women are facing increasing domestic violence as their husbands struggle to cope and lash out at their wives. Many Syrian men refugees feel under pressure because they feel unable to fulfil their traditional role as family providers and protectors. Greatly reduced employment opportunities mean that families are reliant on humanitarian assistance, such as food coupons and cash support for rent, and men end up feeling they are letting their families down.

Colette Fearon, Oxfam’s Syria Response Manager, said: “Life has been turned upside down for the men, women and children who have been forced to flee. But many refugee women are showing courage, strength and organizational skills as they struggle against the odds to rebuild life for their families and hold things together.

“The stress of living as refugees is tearing many families apart. Many simply don’t have enough to eat – and husbands and wives who never used to argue now row each day. The pressures are mounting and people are pushed to extremes. War can bring out the worst in people and we heard worrying reports of rising domestic violence from the refugees we spoke to.”

While many hoped to find comparative calm after fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria, the refugees interviewed say they and their families now face a future of uncertainty and fear for their health and personal safety.

Women living in fear

Outside the home, some widows or unmarried women say they live in fear of kidnapping, robbery, attacks and sexual harassment and this fear for their personal safety was often restricting their movement.

ABAAD Gender Equality Program Coordinator, Roula Masri said: “Despite generous assistance from host communities in Lebanon, there are growing tensions in communities where there are a high number of refugee arrivals, making the lives of women much harder.

“Syrian women refugees avoid going out now that they are in Lebanon because of security concerns and fear of sexual harassment. Some widows even publicly pretend their husbands are still alive back in Syria because they don’t want to reveal how alone and vulnerable they really are. Women, girls, boys and men have different needs, face different threats, and have different skills and aspirations.

Understanding gender differences

“Understanding and responding to these gender differences and inequalities will improve the effectiveness of a humanitarian response and this must be made an urgent priority by all agencies.”

Some families interviewed said they are being forced to resort to extreme ways to cope with the financial pressures they are under. A number of parents talked about giving daughters in marriage for financial reasons or to make them safer. Though concerns have been raised about the age at which girl refugees are being married off, it was not unusual for a girl to be married before the age of 18 in Syria before the conflict.

Education suffers

The report found that a decent education is becoming increasingly out of grasp for children, with both boys and girls finding it hard to go to school, particularly after the age of 11 where an important majority of children have simply dropped out.

Some parents are keeping their boys out of school and getting them to do poorly-paid work because the family income is so desperately stretched. Others are reported preferring to keep their girls at home to do the housework, rather than allow them to attend mixed Lebanese schools. In Lebanon, only one in four child refugees who have fled from Syria are in school due to space limitations and language barriers as many schools teach through English.

Even before the crisis, many women in Syria were subject to discrimination, both in law and in practice. However, women’s experiences as refugees in Lebanon might have an impact on their long-term ability to achieve social and economic independence, to have a role in political participation, and to claim their rights as equal citizens. 

Losing their female identity

Although many women interviewed feel that they have lost their female identity, and are unhappy with new responsibilities, others felt that taking on new roles has created a sense of empowerment, which – with the right support - may offer opportunities for increasing women’s decision making and power longer term.

The new report offers detailed and practical guidance on how the humanitarian response to the crisis could better support men, women, boys and girls, and how aid should be appropriate to their different needs.

For the humanitarian response to have maximum impact for refugee populations in Lebanon, gender analysis should be built into all stages of programming and across all sectors. There is a need for closer co-ordination of different responses between agencies, the Lebanese government and the UN, through sector groups and international NGO co-ordination.

The stress of living as refugees is tearing many families apart. We heard worrying reports of rising domestic violence from the refugees we spoke to.
New Oxfam report, 'Shifting Sands'

Notes to editors

  1. For more information copies of the report or to arrange interviews call Zahra Akkerhuys, Oxfam Press Officer, +44 7525 901932.
  2. The research assessed the lives of Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees from Syria now living in north Lebanon, Bekaa and Palestinian camps in Beirut and the south. A total of 22 focus groups were held. Researchers also conducted 1:1 interviews with a number of individuals from the refugee and Lebanese communities in the areas.
  3. In Lebanon, Oxfam is providing vulnerable families with cash assistance to help them afford safe housing and basic goods for their families. The money is being transferred directly to families via money transfer firm Western Union. This is the first time we have distributed cash in this way.

    Oxfam is also working with a local NGO, Najdeh, to provide psycho-social support to women refugees living in Palestinian camps. This month we also start work on a new humanitarian programme, to raise the voice and agency of Syrian refugees, with a particular focus on gender equality and women’s rights.

    Oxfam is also distributing vouchers which people can exchange for hygiene products such as soap and washing powder as well as food in local shops. The organization is also improving the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) conditions in various locations across Lebanon, including through the improvement of facilities at household level to ensure people, many of whom are living in temporary settlements, have access to safe water and sanitation facilities. Oxfam has a long history of supporting women’s rights in the Arab region. In Lebanon we also work with local organisations to promote women’s access to legal services and to engage men and boys in ending violence against women.

    ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality has a proven record in working in addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in emergency settings. Since August 2012, ABAAD has been engaged in responding to the gendered impact of the crisis on women and men. A rapid assessment on GBV among Syrian women and girls’ refugees was conducted in partnership with IRC, a result of which, two Women and Girls community centers in the Bekaa and the North were opened.

    ABAAD’s case management teams provide an average of 80 case management services and psychological and psychiatric consultations per month. Support-group sessions are being carried out targeting male youth and boys among the affected population as part of ABAAD emergency responsive actions.

    ABAAD with the support of DRC, UNHCR and UNICEF has established transition mid-way houses
    in three regions in Lebanon. The objective of the safe midway houses is to ensure full protection of women, and appropriate specialized longer-term sheltering. Middle-way transition houses offer a free, safe, supportive shelter for abused women, both single women and women with their children. In this confidential environment, women can gather information and explore options with the assistance of trained, professional staff providing psycho-social services and legal counselling.
  4. Earlier this year, Oxfam launched an appeal for $57.6 million to fund its humanitarian response in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria to help more than 650,000 people over 12 months. The organization is keen to scale up its response but currently the appeal is just 28 per cent funded. Donate to Oxfam’s Syria Crisis Appeal.

Contact information

To arrange interviews, or for more information, please contact:
Zahra Akkerhuys, Oxfam Press Officer, +44 7525 901932, skype: zakkerhuys1

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