On International Women’s Day, let’s not forget the women of Syria

Four years into the Syrian civil war and there are still no signs of improvement for the lives of millions of civilians – particularly Syria’s women.

Unlawful conduct by warring parties involved in the conflict has resulted in more than 210,000 deaths and millions of injuries, displacements, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.

Meanwhile, as the world prepares to mark International Women’s Day, we must never forget the hundreds of thousands of Syrian women forced to endure a number of shocking violations.

As well as suffering most from the consequences of the destruction of utilities and the disruption of food supplies, women and girls are also vulnerable to killings, arrests, kidnappings and even being used as human shields.

Based on the reports from the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, sexual violence, and the threat thereof, has been a major feature of the conflict and a driving motivation for families fleeing the violence.

However, the social stigma attached to having been subject to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV) is very strong in Syria.

Victims often feel ashamed and are unwilling to report such crimes, making it extremely difficult to document the true extent of rape.


Refugees also threatened

Out of the nearly four million Syrians refugees globally, 75 per cent are women and children.

In Jordan for example, women and girl refugees face many challenges to their safety and security, and access to basic services including reproductive health is difficult.

However, one of the major issues is the increased threat of GBV such as rape, early and forced marriages, and trafficking.

Here too, GBV remains a private and sensitive issue for families and survivors, who often feel uncomfortable in coming forward publicly with allegations of rape or violence.

The lack of specialised services remains a major obstacle to reporting, as survivors and their families may perceive more risks than benefits when reporting these violations.

A report by UN Women reveals that the rate of early marriage amongst Syrian refugees is high, and that the restrictions on the mobility of women and girls constrains their participation in various socio-economic activities as well as their access to basic services.

This is also due to the fact that women often cannot leave their home without being accompanied by a male family member.

As the overwhelming majority of refugees do not have paid employment and rely mainly on aid and dwindling family resources, the more their displacement is prolonged the greater the likelihood of higher rates of child labour for boys and early marriage for girls.

Yet a significant number of households both in refugee areas and within Syria are headed by women.

Such households require targeted support to compensate for serious mobility constraints, high dependency burdens, and a limited access to income.


Double marginalisation

The ongoing conflict in Syria has also had a significant impact on the country’s Palestinian refugees.

Prior to the conflict, the Palestinian refugee community in Syria consisted of 529,000 people.

Currently, two-thirds of this population is displaced within the region, according to data published by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Of the current Palestinian refugee population in Syria, approximately half are women, including 24,333 households headed by women.

Of particular concern is the ‘double marginalisation’ faced by Palestinian refugee women and girls as they encounter the same risks as Syrian women, in addition to being an already marginalised refugee population.

Loss of livelihoods and of traditional family income generators have left many of these women extremely vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Only a third of the girls from this community continue to regularly attend classes.

As the conflict escalates, the education of Palestinian refugee girls is inherently at risk as protection and safety concerns prevent them from receiving education support.

An understandable sense of hopelessness and misery is setting in for many Syrian women and girls.

Yet, with immediate action and robust programming, women and girls should be able to access essential aid such as healthcare, safe shelter and education.

With strong, strategic partnerships between host and donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs, Syria’s women and girls will be able to live their lives with security and dignity.