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Amidst Syrian refugees, domestic violence grows

January 24, 2014 at 4:44 am

“Any time someone comes to engage me, I am beaten. All the men look at me and my brother thinks I have had sexual relations with them. No one has told him to stop”. The sixteen-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria, who could not be named for security reasons, fled Yarmouk Camp in Damascus with her family just over one year ago.

“They don’t know I’m here speaking to you but it’s increasing a lot. I have bruises all over my body. My friends can’t come to visit me. We are strangers here,” she said. Since arriving at Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in the Lebanese southern city of Saida, she has been subjected to daily beatings from her brother.

“We have one room and a lot of problems. Since we came from Syria, my brother’s behaviour changed. He has thrown tea on my face. My family is very strict where I go. I always have to be with someone. I’m not allowed to go to school any more.”

Ein el-Helweh hosts about 47,500 Palestinian refugees, 6,500 of which are Palestinian refugees from Syria.

There are also an increasing number of Syrian refugees in the camp who, despite having no assistance, choose to live there because housing options in Lebanon have become scarce or far too expensive.

But the lack of income-generating activities in and out of the camp has created tensions among households, where men are no longer seen as the breadwinner for the family.

“The roles between men and women have switched. Men are not assuming their traditional gender role any more,” Roula El Masri, gender equality programme coordinator at ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality, said.

“Because of the situation, men and boys are resorting to violence as a coping mechanism and a way to release the tension. Women inside the household are more prone to domestic violence because men are frustrated at doing nothing.”

She added that men felt too ashamed to collect food vouchers or receive other services from NGOs, leaving women to pick up the pieces, along with caring for children.

Refugee women are not only at risk of domestic violence, but sexual harassment and assault.

A recent report by the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) found that female heads of households were considered more at risk of sexual violence as males struggled with the traumas of displacement and difficult living conditions.

A Child Protection Assessment in Lebanon, by the Child Protection in Emergencies Working Group, done earlier this year, found that in 75 percent of municipalities assessed, respondents reported knowledge of incidences of sexual violence towards refugees in Lebanon.

It identified that sexual harassment, rape, transactional sex and verbal harassment were occurring.

It was most likely to occur on the way to the shops or school, at home and at aid distribution areas. Shockingly, respondents in 19 per cent of municipalities said they knew more than 10 incidents.

“The main perpetrators of sexual violence were reported to be family members, Syrian community members, Lebanese community members and aid workers,” the report noted.

“Misery is misery,” Celine Sursock, from Himaya, an NGO that focuses on child abuse in Lebanon, said.

“Misery and poverty create a cycle. These people have been raped on the streets, lost their homes, seen loved ones die. There are no boundaries as to what is right or wrong any more.”

As a result, the line between gender-based violence and violence such as bombings, has become blurred.

“Syrian boys and youth don’t know the difference between different forms of violence. Gender-based violence is the same as killings for them. It’s seen as normal practice. They’re accustomed to it now,” El Masri said.

Another issue among the refugee community was adapting to living in Lebanon where mobility and liberty was significantly different than in traditional villages throughout Syria.

“Women are gaining more freedom but with the security situation, they are afraid of sexual harassment or assault,” EL Masri said.

“Many single or widowed women fake phone calls to husbands who have either died, don’t exist or are fighting in Syria. It is a protection mechanism to not feel vulnerable in front of host communities.”

Such an issue rings true for many of those living in Ein El-Hilweh.

“Even though they are Palestinian, the culture and tradition in Lebanon is very different,” Huda Uthman, a field officer with Development Action Without Borders, said.

“They are free here but in Syria, things are very strict. In Lebanon, people think the girls are open.”

The teenage Palestinian refugee from Syria agreed, adding that many Lebanese men had come to engage her, leading her brother to think she has acted out.

“Lebanese and Palestinian men have come to engage me but my family said no. My brother is so strict. My friends are even afraid to talk with me because of my family.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.