Women refugees in MENA should not be left to stand alone
The number of refugees and displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is growing by the day. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of Syrian refugees alone in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey is nearly 4 million. Slightly more than half of the refugee and displaced population in the region is constituted by women. They, of course, suffer from the same dire problems of poverty and unemployment men face. A recent UN report shows two-thirds of refugees of both sexes in Jordan live below the poverty line. One-in-six refugees lives on an income of less than $40 a month.
But the plight of women refugees in the MENA region is particularly exacting.
The reign of the Islamic State (ISIS) has pushed the exactions to their most brutal extremes, reducing religious minority women to slaves when they did not butcher them. The terrorist organisation subjected all women under their control to persecution and abuse.
For refugee women, the hardships caused by war and displacement were made worse by the enduring gender bias in Arab societies.
It is more difficult for them to find jobs. According to a recent UNHCR study, only one-fifth of Syrian refugee women have remunerated jobs. One-third say they do not have enough to eat. Many hold strenuous jobs, such as domestic work and agriculture, where they are at risk.
Often deprived of schooling and other educational activities, young refugee girls are subjected to pressures to marry older men. In Jordan, for instance, 64% of the women refugees are less than 25 years of age. Added to polygamy and tolerance of underage marriages in many of the host societies, dire economic circumstances make young women even more vulnerable, not just to arranged marriages but also to sexual exploitation and violent abuse.
Tented encampments add to the precarious situation of women. At least 20% of the women refugees in Jordan are confined to tented settlements with little access to education, business or leisure.
Women in tented encampments are exposed to the elements, from scorching desert heat in Jordan’s summer to the cold of Lebanon’s snowy winter.
In Zaatari camp in Jordan, every ten tents accommodate about 50 male and female inhabitants who share two public toilets, one for men and another for women. Walking a distance to the restrooms, women are exposed to all risks. About 100 cases of rape or sodomy were reported in 2014 in Zaatari.
If in normal circumstances in the Arab world, the burden of taking care of the family and children falls too often on the shoulders of women, the responsibility is compounded in the tragic conditions of displacement, especially that many are widowed and fending for themselves alone.
They have to deal with the challenge of children unable to attend school and their being exposed to the risks emanating from improper housing and health conditions.
“For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship,” says Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
For women refugees in the Arab world, grinding hardship has gone beyond the tolerable threshold.