The Multiple Tragedies of Syria’s Displaced Women - Why the G20 Needs to Pay Attention

Omer Karasapan

Knowledge Coordinator


Roughly half of the world’s 60+ million displaced people are female.  This figure includes 19 million refugees and 41 million internally displaced people (IDPs). This the highest number ever recorded and the numbers continue to rise. According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Gutierrez, “We are witnessing…an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before”.

Already facing multiple inequalities, women face significantly greater risks in displacement — especially discrimination, grinding harassment, and often sexual- and gender-based violence. Host and transit countries need to be aware of the specific dangers faced by women and try to provide for the safety and special services they require, especially for the most vulnerable, that is, unaccompanied women and children, female-headed families, and pregnant, disabled, and older women. However, many countries are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers and are unable to adequately respond, despite the efforts of local and international humanitarian agencies. The single largest source of forced displacements in the world remains Syria, with over 4 million refugees and about 8 million IDPs. In October 2015, a further 124,000 Syrians were displaced from their homes in Aleppo and Idlib as the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian support, went on the offensive. Currently, Turkey is estimated to host some 2.2 million registered Syrian refugees, with over one million registered in Lebanon and 630,000 in Jordan. The actual numbers are higher. Roughly a quarter of this population are women and half are children under the age of 17. The trauma of being a refugee cuts across gender, ethnic and sectarian lines, but women tend to fare worse when it comes to many outcomes. In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, one in four families, or 145,000 families, are female headed with tens of thousands or more such families in Turkey. A 2014 UNHCR report stresses the vulnerability of these families: “Life in exile for these women has meant becoming the main breadwinner and caregiver, fending for themselves and their families, away from their communities and traditional sources of support. For most, the burden is overwhelming, and many are entirely dependent on outside assistance”. These households tend to have greater debt, less food, more children at work and are subject to greater degrees of violence, sexual and otherwise. This is happening as winter approaches and the situation for Syrian refuges in neighboring countries is deteriorating as funding for humanitarian support runs low. Hundreds of thousands have had aid sharply curtailed in Jordan and Lebanon. The World Food Programme (WFP) states that 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are living below the poverty line, and well over half of those in Lebanon. Food insecurity afflicts 85 and 79 percent of these refugees respectively and — echoing the UNHCR — underlines the much higher vulnerability for families headed by women. The vulnerability of young displaced women and girls has also led to massive increases in involuntary child marriages. With fears of sexual violence, many families quickly marry off their daughters for protection or for fear of the girl’s “honor”. Many also need the dowry payments. According to Isadora Quay, a Gender in Emergencies Specialist from CARE, “We’ve seen a massive increase in child marriages in Syria and Iraq and…as far afield as Egypt”. Marriages of children under 18 had trebled among refugees in Jordan in 2014. Women refugees in Turkey also cite the pressure to enter into marriages as one of their most serious challenges. According to the UN, among rural Syrian families where marriage before the age of 18 was common, now girls as young as 13 and 14 are being married, often to much older men. While in Syria the minimum age for marriage is 16 for girls, it is 18 in Turkey and Jordan, though in the latter a waiver is rare but possible. Therefore in both countries, marriages of girls under 18 are illegal. Also, many girls end up as second or third wives.  In Turkey, where the practice of polygamy is illegal and had practically disappeared, it is now resurfacing. This means that many of these “marriages” are illegal, as can be the ‘urfi or traditional marriages in Jordan and Lebanon that are often not documented properly, leaving the women with little legal protection. The impact on these girls can be devastating with an increased risk of health problems, especially related to births, health issues for the newborn, greater risk of violence within families, and the impact of leaving one’s family, school and community at an early age and its attendant psychological impact. Leaving school early is also strongly linked to being trapped in a life of poverty.  The current large movement of refugees into Europe poses risks for all refugees, but especially for young girls and women who need additional protection and appropriate services and shelter. Sheltering or incarceration with large numbers of men, and the sharing of facilities, is a challenge for women and children. Most at risk are unaccompanied women and children who are falling prey to organized crime groups intent not only on trafficking for sexual purposes, but also to recruiting slave labor. The growing number of separated children and women during the trek through Europe exacerbates this tragedy with the UNHCR receiving reports of children engaging in survival sex. With winter coming and neighboring and European nations struggling to cope, it is vital that the G20 pay special attention to the plight of women refugees — especially when under Turkey’s Chairmanship and with strong EU support, they have decided to step beyond their usual narrower economic mandate.  It is not easy to focus host and transit countries on this issue. Yet providing women with livelihood support, safe shelters for them and their children, health care, family reunification, protection from harassment, and making available police and other professionals to deal with criminal activities and their victims is imperative. The UNHCR sees Syrian women as the glue that holds a broken society together. Any support to them will greatly facilitate the emergence of stable, adaptive communities whether back home or abroad.