Women and Girl Refugees: Meeting the Needs of the Most Vulnerable in Times of Crisis
By Maggie Forster Schmitz, Vice President of Philanthropy, ANERA
Poverty, it is said, has a woman’s face. The same can be said for the world’s refugees and displaced. While men and women each make up half of the world’s refugees and displaced population, women (and girls) disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict and natural disaster.
With unequal access to health care, education, and jobs, and an increased risk of domestic and sexual assault, women and girl refugees face a future far more uncertain and violent than their male counterparts.
Conflict and displacement have long had a particularly harsh effect on women and girls. A staggering 60 percent of all preventable maternal mortalities worldwide occur in places marked by wars and natural disasters. Girls in conflict-affected countries are 2.5 times less likely to attend school than their male peers. In times of crisis, many women become the heads of household, yet lack the education, skills, and access to decent work. Instead, they often work in the informal sector, which translates into fewer employee protections, lower wages, and ultimately higher rates of poverty.
Women and girl refugees also face a much higher risk of violence. With displacement comes the breakdown of societal and familial protections. Combined with the economic vulnerability of refugees, this heightens the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, exploitation and, for girls, forced and early marriage. One in five refugee or displaced women and girls have experienced some form of sexual violence and, given cultural barriers, this statistic is widely thought to be under-reported. Camps and informal settlements offer little protection for women and girls during daily tasks such as collecting water and firewood. Under the cover of darkness, the risk of violence increases.
A Women-Centered Crisis Demands Gender-Responsive Solutions
Humanitarian organizations know that investments in several critical areas can provide immense help to displaced and refugee women and children. They must have safe shelter and secure access to basic needs such as food, water, sanitation and cooking fuel. Beyond these fundamental necessities, we must guarantee equal access to services, including health care, education, and economic opportunities. Finally, given their potential as agents of change in their families and communities, women and girls should be empowered to fulfill their educational and economic potential.
However, there is a considerable gap between identified needs and actual response. As conflicts persist, countries, international agencies, and humanitarian organizations not only need to step up their overall response, but to focus their efforts on women’s and children’s needs in particular.
Looking at Lebanon
With the world’s highest concentration of refugees per capita, Lebanon knows these challenges well. Lebanon has taken in over 1.5 million Syrian refugees and over 75 percent of them are women and children. Meeting the needs of these vulnerable groups has placed considerable strain on the Lebanese government and on international organizations.
Safety First in Camps and Tented Settlements
Syrian refugees in Lebanon face many barriers securing a safe home environment. Given Lebanon’s “no camp” policy, Syrian refugees live in informal, tented settlements, unfinished houses or garages, warehouses or other forms of substandard housing. Over 60 percent of the total refugee population lives in the north and in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s poorest regions. Parts of these areas supply an average of only three to six hours of electricity a day. During the dark winter months, movement in these settlements or urban areas can be a very risky endeavor.
One gender-sensitive response is to provide adequate lighting. For the past several years, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) has distributed battery-powered LED lighting to refugee families in the winter. Rechargeable lights provide an additional source of security for women and children at night. Over the past two years, ANERA has delivered these lights as part of winter protection kits to almost 2,700 Syrian refugee families in northern Lebanon. This is just one example of how simple efforts can go far in protecting women and children.
Healthy Bodies and Minds
Refugee and displaced women and girls are often denied access to the few health care options available, including pre- and post- natal care and reproductive health. Lack of skilled female health workers, poor road conditions, limited financial resources and a lack of ambulances are just some of the reasons.
Providing free health care services and supplies eliminates one barrier to women and girls’ health. ANERA’s in-kind program provides vital medicines (including for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder) and everyday medical supplies to clinics serving refugees. ANERA also provides hygiene and dignity kids that include items such as washable menstruation pads.
Sports programs for girls are also proving to be invaluable as a gender-sensitive response. Sports such as soccer, basketball, and yoga challenge societal norms that prevent girls from being active. These programs also help alleviate psychosocial issues arising from displacement and resettlement.
The Future is Female
It’s well-known that investments in women and girls yield great dividends for their families, communities and nations. Yet educational and economic opportunities for women and girls are often restricted or denied, often due to cultural and financial reasons. It’s vital that we change this so that girls have a chance at becoming fulfilled and self-sufficient adults.
Efforts to train and educate refugees must therefore address gendered barriers to participation. ANERA’s education programs respond to the specific needs of both young men and women. For teenage girls, this translates into daytime classes, female instructors, daycare facilities and safe transportation.
Just in 2016, more than 12,000 refugee youth, over 60% of them girls, took remedial math, Arabic and skills-based classes in Lebanon. Many have since moved on to advanced learning, jobs, and internships.
The international consensus that gender equality is good for all humankind underscores the need to invest in women and girls when they are the most vulnerable. With women at the helm, the future is brighter.