How the resilience of Syrian women and girls is inspiring a hard-fought battle for gender equality
The war in Syria has entered its ninth year. What began as a response to peaceful protest in 2011, quickly erupted into a ferocious conflict that has led to the deaths of more than half a million people, driven an exodus of more than 6.5 million refugees, almost half of whom are children, and displaced millions more. In 2018 alone, 1,106 children were killed in the fighting - the highest ever number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war.
In Ireland, the war may have faded from the headlines, but it rages on. While the vast majority of Syrian refugees want to return to their homeland, there are serious concerns for the safety of those who attempt to. Caught between a country they cannot safely return to and life in exile, many live a life of prolonged struggle - the impact of conflict and displacement compounded by increasing levels of poverty and despair.
Today, at the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women in New York, Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's Ambassador to the United Nations and current chair of the commission, will launch a report on gender-based violence (GBV) and the experience of Syrian women who have become refugees in Lebanon.
We know conflict and displacement leads to an intensification of violence directed against women and girls, and the extent of GBV caused by the Syrian conflict is inestimable. 'In violence we forget who we were', which has been published by the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence, examines how responses to GBV can be effectively incorporated into the large-scale humanitarian response.
Lebanon is now hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and the country's humanitarian response plan to respond to the Syrian crisis is immense. However, the report shows even within a very daunting context such as the Syrian crisis, when you prioritise responding to GBV, you can greatly help those who have experienced terrible trauma. Holistic, well-resourced programmes can enable women and girls to regain their confidence and achieve a level of empowerment they may have never thought possible.
Restoring that agency and ensuring GBV response programmes are survivor led is essential, as is having a sustained presence on the ground along with adequate resources and funding. I recall speaking to a 15-year-old Syrian girl the last time I visited Lebanon. Living with her mother and younger sister in a rented room in a garage, she felt she had no choice but to give up her dream of becoming a doctor to marry a 50-year-old man, so she would no longer be a burden on her family. Not only had she survived the hardship of war and become a refugee, she was about to destroy her future. Fortunately, Concern was able to support her family to pay the rent and the young girl is now back in school. There are always solutions.
We know there is no substitute for peace in Syria, but there is also no excuse for inaction, or worse, apathy.
One of the most encouraging findings our report shows is that the humanitarian response to the crisis has changed reality for women of all backgrounds in Lebanon, from refugee and host communities alike. Even in times of crisis, it is possible to have an extraordinary impact on the lives of the most vulnerable. That crucial realisation has been central to the work of Concern, that we can affect transformative change alongside providing life-saving assistance.
It is welcome and so vital this belief is at the heart of Ireland's new policy on international overseas assistance. The ambition to 'reach the furthest behind first', which frames Ireland's new overseas assistance outlook, is not only an acknowledgement of our obligations, but a crucial affirmation of our ability to do so. From a humanitarian perspective, it is a very welcome boost at a time when regression and isolationism are plaguing many nations in Europe.
The resilience of Syrian women in Lebanon is truly inspiring, but the long nightmare of the conflict is far from over. With this report we want to show how survivor-centred programming is helping rebuild the lives of women and girls and contributing to the promise of a future beyond the war. As Ireland continues on a hard-fought but inspiring journey towards gender equality, it is crucial we also show solidarity with those who are furthest behind. If we are committed to the empowerment of women and girls across the globe, we must continue to support this vital work on the ground.
Dominic MacSorley is chairperson of the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence, and CEO of Concern Worldwide. The consortium's report, 'In violence we forget who we were', can be read at gbv.ie