Reaching Syrian refugee survivors of gender-based violence: a mobile approach

Article Date

09 December 2015

Article Author

Pam Lilleston

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Amira* fled the war in Syria in 2012. After her brother was killed in the conflict, her family felt that they had no choice but to leave for their own safety. In Lebanon, she found refuge from the war but experienced a different form of violence within her very own home – physical abuse from her husband.

Amira’s story is not unique. As a result of the conflict and displacement, refugee women and girls face increased risk of experiencing physical, sexual, or psychological violence. And it is likely that this is dramatically under-reported. Sometimes the violence is perpetrated by strangers. Often the perpetrator is a husband, father, or other family member living under the same roof.

In addition to the psychological toll of displacement, refugees are torn from the traditional safety nets provided by friends, family, and a familiar community. They are often unable to obtain safe housing and sufficient food to eat. Women and girls, in particular, are often isolated within their homes, disconnected from neighbors and the larger community. The stress and vulnerability created by these circumstances can lead to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of women and girls including physical assault, verbal threats and intimidation, restricted movement, rape, and early and forced marriage.

In this context, there is a desperate need for gender-based violence services. Psychosocial support and case management, including counseling, safety planning, and referrals, can be life-saving services for survivors of gender-based violence, mitigating the effects of violence and connecting women and girls to crucial medical or legal services. However, these services aren’t always available in refugee settings or may be inaccessible to women and girls due to cultural, cost, or transportation barriers.

I recently traveled to Lebanon for a project ICRW is working on – with support from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and Sida- to evaluate an innovative mobile service delivery model for gender-based violence response and mitigation being piloted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). This program provides women and girls like Amira with free access to emotional support groups, recreational activities, and a case worker who can provide counseling and psychosocial support and connect them to legal, health, and other necessary services. But unlike most gender-based violence services that are located in fixed centers and require women and girls to travel to them, the IRC’s mobile services meet women and girls where they are. One day per week over the course of about six months, the IRC conducts activities in women and girls’ own communities in locations that are comfortable and familiar such as clinics, mosques, and community centers.

Working with a team of Syrian and Lebanese researchers, I investigated whether these services provide Syrian refugee women and girls with the safety and support they desperately need and whether the model held up against important global standards like protecting clients’ confidentiality.

In talking to IRC staff members and Syrian refugees in communities where IRC provided the mobile services, our team learned of the program’s impact on the lives of women and girls. We learned how the mobile gender-based violence services strengthen women and girls’ social networks in their communities, reduce their feelings of isolation, and increase their self-confidence.

As the global refugee crisis continues to escalate, more women and girls like Amira will flee their countries. They will enter foreign lands safe from war but at risk for new and different forms of violence. The IRC’s gender-based violence mobile service delivery model is a promising approach for accessing hard-to-reach refugee populations with critical response and mitigation services. In just a few months, we will release findings from our evaluation. We will also make recommendations regarding how the model can be improved and transferred to different refugee contexts. We look forward to sharing them with you. Stay tuned!

*Amira is a composite fictional character based on the real experiences of women and girls interviewed for this study.