BEIRUT: A quarter of all Syrian refugee households in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are now run solely by a woman, leaving mothers struggling to make ends meet and even 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, while men stayed behind has forced a realignment of traditional gender roles, pushing women into positions as key breadwinners in the family.
Speaking at the launch of the report in Beirut, UNHCR’s Lebanon Representative Ninette Kelley said: “So many women had secure lives before they fled their country. They had husbands, they had friends, they had social networks. ... 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 had 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 were unemployed.
In desperation, some women say they resorted to a practice known as survival sex, whereby 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, adding that the experience pushed her toward suicidal thoughts.
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.”
As their mothers struggle for employment, children have been driven to work. The report found that in 13 percent of the female-headed households at least one child was working.
Nahla took refuge in the Lebanese city of Sidon with her two children after the violence crept nearer to her home in Idlib. Without her husband, and two months behind in rent payments, she relies on the salary of her 16-year-old, who works in a patisserie for $5 a day, and her 8-year-old, who helps out in a grocery.
“I feel really sad for him,” she says. “But every time I talk to him he says, ‘What do you want me to do, sit around and do nothing? Working 7 a.m.-10 p.m. is better than nothing.’”
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 the U.N.’s regional response plan for Syria is less than 30 percent funded in 2014, 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.”