Shorash is twenty-three years old. She is one of the millions of refugees who was forced to flee her home in Syria in search of safety. When conflict hit her hometown, Shorash and her family took only the bare essentials and walked to the Turkish border. The journey was difficult and, before being allowed to enter Turkey, they were held for several days without food or water. Once admitted, Shorash and her family spent three months sleeping in a park before moving to Iraq and making their way to the Darre Shikran refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Later, the family moved to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where Shorash met and married her husband. Building a new life was not easy. Living in a foreign country was difficult especially since Shorash couldn’t find employment. The family struggled to pay for its needs. Without prospects for returning home or opportunities for employment and settling in Erbil, Shorash and her family felt the instability of their lives every day.
The obstacles that Shorash faced are not unique.
Women refugees experience incomprehensible acts of violence and war that drive them out of their homelands and compound the conditions of gender-based violence and poverty faced by women outside of conflict zones every day. On World Refugee Day, it is critical to consider and address some of the unique difficulties that refugee and internally displaced women face.
The number of refugees and internally displaced people reached 65.3 million in 2016, and, by the end of last year, more than 40 million people were displaced within their own countries because of conflict and violence. Women make up around 50 percent of the world’s refugee and displaced populations. Among the 4.8 million Syrian refugees, women and children are about three-quarters of the displaced. Despite making up a large portion of the refugee and internally displaced communities from Syria and around the world, many of the risks women face are largely ignored by policymakers.
For example, more than 80 percent of Syrian refugee women have reported that they live in daily fear of abuse or aggression. Many have faced violence on the way to safety and even in camps. Having safe sanitation facilities and spaces for women in these camps is particularly important, as many have been attacked while on their way to or from the toilets. While regulations state that these facilities must be well-lit and have lockable doors, these standards often go ignored.
Poverty and lack of economic opportunities impacts all refugees. In Jordan, for example, four in five Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. However, women are more likely to face further violence and marginalization because of economic pressures. Economic instability leads many families to consider marrying off their daughters, forcing them into child marriages. A recent UN study found an alarming rise in rates of child marriage among vulnerable Syrian refugee communities. Girls married before the age of eighteen are more likely to drop out of school, experience gender-based violence, and face significant health concerns. Yet few resources are dedicated to creating safe spaces for survivors of gender-based and sexual violence, including child marriage, leading many to suffer in silence and stigma.
In addition, after losing male family members to conflict, more women are becoming heads of households—but without skills and opportunities for employment, they struggle to pay for their families’ needs. An estimated 145,000 Syrian women are now heads of their families. That represents one in four of all the refugee households in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Only one in five hold paid jobs and one in five have support from other relatives. One third say they don’t have enough to eat.
Although refugee women have faced tremendous challenges, they are ready to fight for themselves and their families. Women like Shorash are incredibly resilient and resourceful, and are actively seeking ways to improve their lives. This is why when Shorash learned about Women for Women International’s program in collaboration with Warvin Foundation for Women’s Issues in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, she immediately signed up.
Through the program, she not only learned vocational and business skills so she can stand on her own feet but also accessed a safe space to connect with other women. She thrived. She attended all classes. She even sat for her final exams on the day she gave birth to her daughter, Nalin. She has learned valuable skills and has now set up a small business growing vegetables in a greenhouse. She is a role model to the other refugee women learning skills at the center. Shorash says that “The program changed my life; I no longer feel lonely and isolated as before. Through the program, I got to know other Syrian women in the neighborhood and the center manager helped me connect with other services available for Syrian refugees. I have been sharing my knowledge about women’s rights and how to prevent violence against women and girls with women in my community.”
The possibilities Shorash found through participation in the center should be available for more refugee and displaced women. Because investing in women refugees is not only the right thing to do, it is the strategic thing to do. They have faced an immense amount of trauma and deserve to live free from violence, child marriage, and rape. But with so many women as the heads of their households, there is no doubt that when they have the skills to empower themselves and rebuild their lives, they can contribute to the well-being and stability of their families and communities, as well. This is particularly crucial as fighting intensifies in Mosul and other areas in the region, which will increase the number of displaced people. All refugee and displaced women deserve pathways out of poverty and isolation, and opportunities to strengthen their communities, like Shorash had.