Life as a refugee: A woman's perspective
Displaced Palestinian and Syrian women living in Lebanon’s refugee camps and informal gatherings are vulnerable to exploitation, poverty, ill-health and violence on a daily basis. And yet, the challenges they face are often missing from the discourse on the ‘refugee crisis’, as is the incredible resilience that they show in the face of struggle.
Understanding the history of Lebanon’s role as a host to Palestinian and Syrian refugees sheds some light on the confusing legal and social status of refugee women in the country.
Lebanon has been host to Palestinian refugees since 1948 as a result of the Nakba. Since then, twelve Palestinian refugee camps have been officially recognised and an estimated 450,000 Palestine refugees have been registered with UNRWA.
Palestinian refugees have had a turbulent history within the country and are denied many civil, political and economic rights. They are also unlikely to seek protection, including legal protection, from Lebanese authorities, and in practice are unlikely to receive it as well.
Within camps, Palestinians rely on their own forms of governance, such as popular committees and security forces run by Palestinian factions.
According to UNRWA, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees living in abject poverty. The populations in Lebanon’s camps have grown while the camps’ perimeters have stayed the same, causing mass overcrowding, inadequate housing and poor infrastructure.
The conflict in Syria and influx of Syrian refugees has compounded an already dire situation. UNHCR estimates that there are now over 1 million Syrian refugees and an estimated 45,000 Palestinian ‘double’ refugees from Syria seeking safety in Lebanon. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than half of them are women.
Gendered experiences of insecurity
Although it is the UNHCR’s duty to offer legal protection to refugees, many women are still at risk of being exploited by unscrupulous characters during the process and are often too traumatised to understand what is required. Women are particularly at risk because they are often unable to seek protection within their own communities as well, leaving them doubly vulnerable.
Safety is also a key concern of many of the families in the camps. Women often feel insecure in their environments, and are at risk of exploitation and mistreatment by landlords in the towns. Some refugee women have found a solution to the issue of harassment by living closer to other female-led households. Coping mechanisms like this enable women to negotiate the daily obstacles they face and protect themselves, their neighbours and community- and it is a form of resilience that often goes unnoticed.
Main income earners
Many women are raising their children alone because their husbands are separated due to conflict, being forced to work far away or simply being too traumatised to contribute. As a result, the traditional roles that women adopted before living in the refugee camps have transformed and women now carry a heavier burden. The resulting pressure on women to hold families together whilst coping with their poor health or mental health issues is a serious concern for many mental health organisations working in the camps.
Interpal’s female beneficiaries have spoken to us about having family in Syria, and some have sons and husbands who remain missing after being arrested. The trauma or absence of fathers means that older children are required to support their families. Many young men and boys are therefore forced to work instead of going to school, and many girls end up caring for younger siblings, or getting married to ease the burdens on their families. Effectively, the life choices of young Palestinian and Syrian women are being limited as they focus on survival.
New refugees and gender relations
Since the massive influx of Syrian refugees in to Lebanon, it has been reported that Palestinian refugees are gradually being edged out of the Lebanese labour market while Syrian refugees are exploited for lower wages. Yet there are other issues stemming from the arrival of newer refugees, including the impact on social conditions, specifically those related to women and girls.
Hanaan Jadaar, supervisor of the Women’s Community Centre in El-Buss Camp, explained that there is a growing concern amongst Palestinian women that Palestinian men are marrying young Syrian women and/or girls as their second wives. This familial discord and potential for abuse of vulnerable girls has been raised by Interpal; it’s an increasing concern for local women’s groups and NGOs.
Gender-based violence and vulnerable women
Domestic violence is seen as a symptom of a highly patriarchal and distressed population in Lebanon’s refugee camps and there are few options available to women who are suffering to escape cycles of violence. As mentioned earlier, Palestinian women and children victims of domestic violence are unable to seek any protection from the Lebanese authorities; what support there is comes from non-governmental women’s groups who offer help and try to find solutions. Women with children remain unlikely to leave abusive husbands. The lack of employment opportunities leave women vulnerable to decisions made for them by their families relating to marriage.
Despite a general lack of support for women’s issues in the refugee camps, what cannot be ignored is the grouping and organising of refugee women to help themselves and other women in their communities.
There’s the Women’s Programme Centre, for example. Supported by Interpal, it is located in El Buss refugee camp and is a community run organisation focused on providing vocational training and advice for young people and women in the Tyre area. It supports women on the issue of domestic violence and health concerns and is an important source of support for Palestinian and Syrian communities.
There’s also the ‘Al Haneen Centre’ in Beddawi Camp. The centre provides sponsorships and social workers to teach a class of deaf and mute young women daily. It serves 260 children through various services and without it, many vulnerable young women with disabilities would be isolated from their communities. From Interpal’s very own group of female-only social workers to individual women on a mission to better their communities, women-led initiatives across Lebanon’s refugee camps are a sign of strength and resilience in the face of ongoing trauma.