Women and girls make up 50% of the refugee, internally displaced, and/or stateless population. Along with women and girls having to face the difficulties associated with being displaced such as learning a new language, gaining citizenship, trying to stay close to one’s family, and trying to survive the journey to reach a safe country, women and girls have to face an additional challenge. Refugee women and girls bear the additional burden of ensuring the safety of their child, being subjected to sexual harassment or rape, dealing with pregnancies during their displacement, and not having adequate hygiene or reproductive resource. Though women and girls are half of the refugee population, why are female refugee needs and burdens not addressed or prioritized?

The Syrian refugee crisis is the latest example. Proclaimed the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century by the United Nations, specifically in the Za’atari refugee camp which is run under the UNHCR, meeting women’s needs has proved difficult. As a woman who wants to receive health aid, you must be registered with the UN to gain access to these health services, a system that works better on paper than in reality. These services aim to reduce newborn and maternal death, slow down the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and try to manage and reduce sexual violence (including rape). Despite the efforts of this program, the problem lies in overpopulation and low representation. Currently, the Za’atari camp, that hosts a population of 79,564, 49.8% are female, and in the 12-59 years old category who would require these services only 28.3% overall are registered as of January 5th, 2017. This number does not include the number of refugees whom are female and are not registered. Hence, as the number of unregistered women and girls grows, the number of females who do not have access to these services grow.

Photo: Photo Unit/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0


Additionally, an issue that is widespread with inter-agency working groups, such as with IAWG (Inter-agency Working Group), is a lack of knowledge about reproductive health in crisis situations, and the priorities of applying the MISP (“Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Heath in Crisis Situations”) which includes giving out contraceptives and treating sexually transmitted infections. The camp was able to meet the standards of MISP, however, unregistered females were not gaining access to this package and as a result, there was limited awareness and knowledge within the community about sexual violence. The United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) reported difficulties of organizing reproductive health services because of the opposing control in Syria and the fragmentations of health and social structures. Additionally, women told IAWG evaluators that they were afraid of using camp sanitary facilities because of the lack of lighting. The UNHCR found that 83% of facilities for women had inadequate lighting and broken locks which increased the risk of sexual violence towards women. This percentage does not include the number of female refugees who are not registered with the UN whom also face the same difficulties. The stigma associated with gender-based violence is still quite prevalent and must be prioritized if the health of refugee women is to be improved.

In order to understand the complete difficulties facing refugee women, one must also look at their conditions within other nations in the Middle East that act as surrogate homes for refugees. In Lebanon, a nation that has taken in many Syrian refugees, many Syrian refugee women have reported a lack of access to antenatal care because of the high costs per visit. Additionally, only a third of the women felt that health services are easily accessible. Sexual based violence is an ongoing issue as well, as victims continue to be stigmatized and remain silent for fear of being ostracized. Similar data can be found in Jordan, while comparatively, there is a significantly less data on female refugees in Turkey, as there are very few NGOs delivering health care because of the strict policies within the country. The refugee camps in Turkey are in an extremely deplorable state and feature a lack of clean drinking water, access to hygiene products, and bathing facilities. In 2014, the Ministry of Health in Turkey signed a memorandum in conjunction with the UNFPA to provide women health services. Despite the signing of this legal document the actions that it puts forward have not been met to a significant degree.

“Vaccinate your children before it’s too late.”

It is clear that with countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, all nations that have taken in many Syrian refugees have faced an array of challenges. One of which has been the significant amount of stigma attached to gender-based violence. This stigma has led many women to feel unsafe reporting the difficulties they face or the lack of services they can access. Moreover, there is limited to no education and discourse in these nations about sexually transmitted diseases, violence, rape, and female-specific needs. These coupled with the lack of data for refugee women health outcomes demonstrates the discrepancy in gender-based data collection and the questionable accuracy of resource and service deployment.

“Be the voice, don’t be the echo”

To address and improve conditions for refugee women, there must be an increase in education and dialogue about women’s issues. Without educating communities about what women truly need and are entitled to so they can stay healthy, the stigma will continue to grow and women and girls will continue to suffer in silence. Women also need to reclaim the knowledge, skills, and agency they need to address and stop gender-based violence, for us to better understand what must be done to prevent it. Platforms need to be established for women to come forward about what they are going through so crises responses can be tailored to prioritize and address women’s issues. Additionally, there needs to be greater awareness of and discussion about the necessity of reproductive health and the effects of gender-based violence on men and women alike. The research in women health for refugees is extremely limited, and that needs to change. As more research is collected, refugee policies must adapt to address women’s issues and provide the necessary framework for NGO’s to provide the necessary resources and services. Additionally, refugee camps health facilities for women need to be safer and more secure and employ experts in women’s and reproductive health. Organizations need to collaborate to ensure the accessibility and efficiency of these resources and services and support one another to address this growing issue. In the words of a refugee in the Za’atari camp whose words demonstrate the need for proactive commitment, “be the voice, don’t be the echo”.

By Muriam Fancy

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.