Syria’s Isolated Refugee Women Face a Dangerous and Humiliating Battle

A UN report shows that one in four Syrian refugee households is headed by a single woman, facing daily physical and financial hardship.

Jul 9, 2014 · 3 min read

By John Beck. Read the extended piece on VICE News.

One in four Syrian refugee households is now headed solely by a woman, according to a new United Nations report detailing the hardships and dangers they face while struggling to provide for their families.

More than 145,000 of the roughly half a million Syrian refugee families displaced since the war began in 2011 have a single woman as decision-maker and provider, UNHCR said today. They also released a study based on interviews with 135 Syrian women in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan in February and April 2014.

Outside of traditional family structures, existence is precarious. Many of the women interviewed had previously depended on the men in their lives for physical and financial safety. Now, due to death, imprisonment, or displacement, they are alone in a foreign country and cut off from their communities and traditional sources of support. The testimony gathered by the report’s authors reveals the women are struggling to even provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, and healthcare for their families.

Accommodation is often haphazard, unsafe and unsanitary, as well as being extremely overcrowded. Food, especially anything fresh, is scarce and a third of respondents said that they didn’t have enough to eat at all.

This is partly a result of their struggle for any form of income. Just one in five of the women interviewed have jobs — despite many being highly educated — and the same proportion again receive money from relatives. Many of the rest rely on assistance from aid agencies, charities, and generous locals, although a third had no money coming in at all. Some spoke of selling off everything they owned — even wedding rings — and said they had long exhausted pre-war savings.

Those lucky enough to have jobs are often forced to work in the informal sector. In the three countries where research was carried out, formal employment opportunities for Syrian refugees are slim due to restrictions on the right to work. In the shadow economy, however, there is less protection from exploitation and abuse.

“For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship,” said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “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. It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything.”

Abuse was not only a problem in employment. The women interviewed by UNHCR described sexual harassment in shops, on the streets, while using public transport, and even while collecting aid. The problem was particularly acute in Egypt, where sexual violence is at epidemic levels. Rawan, a woman in her 40s who lives with her elderly mother in Alexandria has moved address four times due to sexual harassment by landlords. Diala, who also lives in Alexandria, said: “A woman alone in Egypt is prey to all men.”

Read the extended piece on VICE News, and follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

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