Syrian refugee women face new COVID-19 battleground

‘The coronavirus has taken women back in time.’

Young women take part in a self-defence training class. (Sam Mednick/TNH and CARE International)

Iman Al-Sin, a former child bride who fled Syria’s civil war, now teaches self-defence to other women and girls living in Jordan, showing them how to fend for themselves. “I love seeing happiness, self-confidence on [women’s] faces and knowing that they have overcome their fears,” said Al-Sin. 

For many Syrian women who have fled to Jordan and Lebanon to escape their country’s civil war, that confidence may be in short supply amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic

“The coronavirus has taken women back in time,” Al-Sin, 32, told The New Humanitarian by telephone in April. “Women are no longer able to go out or to work, which means it is taking away from the strength they’ve acquired. It’s taking away from our confidence and independence.”

In addition to using kickboxing and combat moves to teach women self-confidence, Al-Sin – who was married at the age of 16 in rural Syria (the legal age for Syrian girls to marry is 17) – works with CARE International, where she advocates against child marriage. 

“Women are no longer able to go out or to work, which means it is taking away from the strength they’ve acquired. It’s taking away from our confidence and independence.”

Relaxing lockdown restrictions is unlikely to improve the situation for many women any time soon, Al-Sin and other Syrian women who spoke with TNH from Jordan and Lebanon said. Some have lost jobs; some worry they will be forced to rely on abusive family or former partners; others are concerned that medical and legal assistance will remain difficult to access, along with necessities such as menstrual supplies.

An April survey of 1,100 adolescent girls and boys conducted by Plan International showed that girls in Lebanon have been left more vulnerable because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the particular vulnerability of Syrian refugee girls was striking.

“Among 35 percent of adolescent girls who reported they do not have access to menstrual supplies, an overwhelming two thirds were Syrian refugee girls,” said Colin Lee, Plan’s Middle East director. Some “66 percent of adolescent girls reported they do not have the financial means to buy hygiene pads. More than half of these were Syrian refugees,” he added.

‘He beat my daughter in front of my eyes’

Lebanon, which has 859 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths, instituted a partial lockdown on 15 March. More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, where unemployment rates already hover around 40 percent and inflation has surged.

Although restrictions have eased, Lebanon’s economy was already in bad shape before the pandemic, and rolling protests that began last year have caused many businesses to shut. 

Cedra, a refugee now living in Lebanon, was 11 when she fled Syria in 2013. Several years later, she met a Lebanese man who she said started beating her one month into the marriage. 

“He beat my (eight-month-old) daughter in front of my eyes, and forbade me from helping her," Cedra, now 18, told TNH by phone, asking that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals from her husband. She is now pregnant with her second child. 

Cedra left the couple’s home in mid-March and fled with her daughter to her mother’s in a compound run by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Although she now feels safer, she said COVID-19 restrictions make it harder for her to get prenatal medical care and legal assistance, including filing for child support and custody of her daughter. Due to the pandemic, the courts are not operating at full capacity.

Public transport is often suspended since the restrictions went into place, so she pays for private cars to take her to the clinic – a cost of $3.50 (10,000 Lebanese pounds) for a round trip. She has been borrowing money from her mother and brother, but her mother has lost her house-cleaning job because of the coronavirus.

Without legal intervention – which could forbid her husband from threatening her and hold him accountable if he did – Cedra is at greater risk, said Maya Haddad, senior case manager for Kafa (Enough) Violence and Exploitation, a local feminist aid group. The group is providing Cedra with psychosocial support.

Haddad finds the impact of the coronavirus on refugees concerning, particularly the fact it has made it harder to report cases of abuse. 

Before the pandemic, 45 percent of people seeking help from Kafa for gender-based violence were Syrian refugees, she said. Since the lockdown measures were instituted, there has been a drop in calls from Syrian refugees. Haddad said she suspects this is because women are being closely watched by partners or families. 

Similarly, in Jordan, where the lockdown – initially considered one of the strictest in the world – was put in place in mid-March, there was a reduction in calls to the protection hotlines for gender-based violence, according to UNHCR. Officials suggested that was due to a lack of privacy because people were staying home, making reporting abuse by phone challenging. 

Jordan hosts some 655,000 Syrian refugees. The majority live outside refugee camps, in urban centres. After helping the country – which has recorded 562 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths – “flatten the curve” of new infections, many lockdown measures have now been lifted. But Al-Sin and other women say things are far from going back to what life was like pre-coronavirus. 

The risk of COVID-19 has only added to the obstacles refugee women face, said Rula Amin, UNHCR spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa. 

Many women are still waiting for residency papers, or are tied financially to their partners or their families. In some cases, this reliance can lead to keeping quiet about gender-based violence, according to groups that work with women. The pandemic restrictions have only added to the bureaucracy, and to the time it takes to get paperwork processed. 

“There needs to be a clear message,” said Nada Darwazeh, chief of the gender equality section at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’s Center for Women. “Not only of intolerance to violence – but also that violence against vulnerable groups such as refugee women in rural areas or camps as well as migrant workers won’t be tolerated.” 

As lockdown restrictions ease and Cedra looks ahead to rebuilding her life in Lebanon, she said she was “very tired” and had “many concerns”. Among those, she added: “raising both of my children alone”.

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