Syrian refugees in Lebanon
The house of 18 women

Domestic violence, sexual abuse and child marriage – when Syrian women in Lebanon don't know where to turn, they can find refuge at the women's shelter "Al Dar". A visit to the Bekaa Valley. By Iris Mostegel

None of the neighbours have any idea what goes on in this house somewhere in Lebanon. There's no name plate on the door, no sign. Hardly anyone ever enters or leaves. But once inside, the voices of 18 girls and women can be heard, while in the kitchen dishes clatter as food is put on the table.

With the support of various aid organisations, the Lebanese women's rights organisation "Abaad" has been running shelters for women and girls affected by violence at three different locations in Lebanon since 2013.

They call it "Al Dar", the house and, like almost everything these days in Lebanon, "Al Dar" is feeling the impact of the civil war in the neighbouring country. At around one third, the ratio of Syrian women seeking refuge here is extremely high.

Sexual abuse of Syrian refugees

Poster in the women’s shelter run by ″Abaad″ (source: Abaad)
Child marriage – faced with an existential struggle to survive, refugee families are increasingly marrying off their underage daughters

Among them are ten-year-old A.* and 14-year-old H.*, sisters from Idlib. Pale faces, dark plaits, brown eyes. Separated from their mother by the chaos of war, they were abused and sexually harassed by their stepfather. Eight months ago, they picked up the phone and alerted the women's shelter to their plight, the "Al Dar" attendants tell us.

"Only a few women make contact with us on their own. Most of them are referred by relief organisations or government agencies," says Jihane Isseid, Abaad programme manager. "At first, they usually report being physically mistreated. But in the course of the therapy sessions, it regularly turns out that sexual abuse has also been involved."

Syrian women and children who have fled to Lebanon are "affected disproportionately often" by violence and abuse, states a UNHCR report from 2015. One in four cases involves sexual abuse and more and more incidents of domestic violence are also being reported. Financial distress, fear of deportation and a life spent in crowded tent camps – the report maintains that the high level of stress within the refugee families is contributing to this increase in abuse.

"Survival sex" and child marriages

Since the outbreak of the humanitarian crisis, relief organisations in Lebanon have also noted two further developments: an increased risk of so-called "survival sex" – sex in return for vital assistance – and more child marriages. Although complete and reliable statistics are not available on the number of child marriages in Lebanon, a UNICEF study of Syrian refugee girls in Jordan found that the rate has gone up by 20 percent in just over two years. The study reported that girls aged from 15 to 17 made up nearly one third of all Syrian marriages registered in early 2014.

14-year-old H. with her pale face and dark plaits was also destined to be married off at the age of ten – as per her father's plans. Her mother was only able to prevent the marriage by fleeing with her daughter and the other children, say the "Al Dar" attendants.

″Shut up!″ poster in the ″Abaad″ women’s shelter (source: Abaad)
"Shut up!" Financial distress, fear of deportation and a precarious existence are all contributing to an increase in refugee family stress levels – just one reason for the increase in domestic violence

"Before the war, there were already forced marriages of minors in Syria, but their number has increased further," says Isseid. She ascribes this in part to the economic straits of many refugee families, because once a daughter is married, she will be taken care of, while her parents have one less mouth to feed. "The second crucial factor is that parents often believe that marrying offers a girl protection from sexual assault by those around her."

Exit strategy for the future

The fact that the dangers inherent in marrying young are much greater than the supposed benefits is something the girls and women are taught at "Al Dar". For every new arrival, two social workers and a psychologist put together a personal care package including crisis intervention meetings and therapy sessions, legal advice, life management training, raising awareness for domestic and sexual violence – and finally, working out an exit strategy for the future, because "Al Dar" is only a staging post for these women during the acute, critical phase, which may last several months. While many are subsequently transferred to a permanent shelter, other women are taken in by well-meaning relatives. But hardly anyone returns to the scene of abuse and violence.

For 14-year-old H. and 10-year-old A., their sojourn in the women's shelter is nearly over. The sisters have been living here for eight months and soon it will be time to move on. But how and where, is not yet clear. Their fondest wish is to follow their mother, who has fled to Turkey, so that they can all be together again.

Iris Mostegel

© 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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