Sunday 4 December 2016

Desperate measures young girls take just to stay alive

Brid Kennedy

Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30

Migrant mother holds her children waiting on the Greek side of the border near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Photo: AP
Migrant mother holds her children waiting on the Greek side of the border near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Photo: AP

Rauda escaped Syria after 19 rockets hit her house. She now lives in neighbouring Lebanon with her family in a tent where she experiences the cold, misery and humiliation.

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"Before the war, we were living happy, as if we were in heaven," she explained.

Rauda left all of her possessions behind and made a run for it.

"As we were leaving there were a lot of snipers shooting at us."

Rauda's story is not uncommon.

During the time I have spent with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, what struck me was how the deep psychological and emotional wounds of war were so raw. The Syrian war has wrecked their lives.

All they want is peace and to be able to lead a dignified life. Rauda, living a shattered life as a refugee, reminds us of the distress and trauma so deeply experienced by those who have fled the war.

In Lebanon, where there are no formal refugee camps, Syrian families live wherever they can find a safe space; under plastic sheeting, in ramshackle buildings or in single rooms with no window glass and exposed to the elements .

Many families have been living like this since the war in Syria began five years ago.

Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon face myriad protection issues. Women and girls have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis.

Of the over 5 million people who have fled Syria to neighbouring countries, four out of five are women and children; 27pc of the female refugee population is under 18. Physical, sexual, and gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, trauma, harmful traditional practices, lack of access to education, family separation and an inability to access basic social services are pervasive in the lives of Syrian refugee women and girls.

The vulnerability of Syrian refugees in Lebanon increased significantly last year; an estimated 52pc of them are now unable to meet their minimum survival requirements and more than 70pc are living below the poverty line. Girls are disproportionately affected by the Syrian conflict - early marriage, child labour and domestic violence are among their primary risks. Sabah Al-Hallak, a member of the Syrian Women's League, prefers the candid wording of 'forced marriage', as this highlights the lack of decision-making that girls tend to have.

Syrian families don't want to deliberately put their girls in danger. However, many choose child-marriage as an economic coping mechanism, where girls as young as 13 are often married to an older man so they can be 'looked after'.

These are among the desperate measures taken to cope with their very harsh daily realities.

Child marriage can have devastating and damaging effects on a girl's life where they are deprived of education, leaving them trapped in a punishing cycle of limited economic opportunities and domestic violence, with disregard for their role and dignity.

These young girls, already survivors of war and trauma, are now at risk of mental health issues stemming from stress, abuse and social isolation.

Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than adult women.

The World Health Organisation has found that "pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second highest cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls globally".

Newborn babies are at higher risk of mortality when born to adolescent mothers.

To try and reduce the risk of violence to girls and women, Concern's innovative 'Engaging Men to Promote Resilient Communities' programme in Lebanon aims to strengthen community members' capacity to address, prevent, and respond to protection issues, including sexual and domestic violence as well as inter and intra-community conflicts. The programme is informed by a growing acceptance of the critical importance of engaging men in fostering functional, non-violent communities.

This acceptance is steeped in an understanding that men are perpetrators, survivors, and witnesses of risks to violence and therefore their engagement is integral to the prevention of harm.

The conflict in Syria has not only created a crisis requiring intervention, but also presents a critical entry point to foster men's use of non-violent coping and conflict resolution strategies, support for gender equality, and women's meaningful and active participation in decision making.

The psychosocial support to women and education on sensitive gender issues and the engagement with men is positively impacting on men's behaviour and attitudes.

It seems that the new concepts of gender equality and addressing conflict through non-violent communication are giving way to a fresh type of thinking and behaviour that is fostering more peace in the home in particular.

Today, as we mark International Women's Day, we must remember Rauda, and other women who are in similar situations, and all those girls who have become child brides. We must ensure that her dignity - and that of all other Syrian women and girls - is protected and that they can all live in peace.

Brid Kennedy is Regional Director Asia & the Middle East with Concern Worldwide

Irish Independent

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