BEIRUT: One in four Syrian refugee households in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are now run solely by a woman, leaving mothers struggling to make ends meet and forcing children into work, a report by the United Nations released Tuesday says.
Some 2.8 million people have fled Syria's civil war, the vast majority women and children. Their displacement, without men who stayed behind, has forced a realignment of traditional gender roles, pushing women into the position of the key breadwinner in the family.
Speaking at the launch of the report in Beirut, UNHCR’s Lebanon representative Ninette Kelley said that “so many women had secure lives before they fled their country, they had husbands, they had friends, they had social networks ... and it has all been torn about by the conflict and they find their lives shattered.”
The report, “Woman Alone: The fight for survival by Syria's refugee women,” is based on the testimony of 135 women, who are all singularly responsible for managing their homes in the absence of their husbands, many of whom have been killed or jailed.
While many Syrian women ran households before the war, they were heavily dependent on financial support and protection from men. Without this, the majority of the women told UNHCR that finding enough money for rent and food was a daily struggle. A third said their families did not have enough to eat, and 80 percent of the women were unemployed.
In desperation, some women say they resorted to a practice known as 'survival sex,' where women exchange sexual favors for material goods or money.
Thirty-four-year old Shurouq, living with her eight children in Jordan, recounted how after two days with very little food, she allowed a taxi driver to take her to an area where “everyone will give you money.”
“I was so afraid. The taxi driver left me there. It was very far away. I was walking and crying. As I walked, I fell twice,” Shurouq said.
Kelley said that mothers are particularly at risk of such abuse. “These women face additional vulnerabilities ...There are dark stories of women who are vulnerable to arrest, harassment and sexual exploitation,” she said.
Investing in community centers, providing childcare and offering skills training were identified as key ways of supporting women-led households.
However, Kelley warned that as funding to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis across the region has reached less that 30 percent of 2014's target so far, it was impossible to cover all the needs of vulnerable women.
“We can’t meet all chronic health-care needs ... We can’t ensure that all their children will be provided with education in the formal education system ... We can’t ensure them that there will be community centers they can access where they can meet with other women and get the kind of social support they need,” she said.
“We are faced with very difficult choices. The funding is not where it needs to be and the numbers continue to grow.”