By Pamela Lilleston
I did not like to get out of the house or mix with people. After we left Syria, I felt that I had emotional problems. I did not like to go out and share with anyone. I felt that this environment is not ours. You feel that people in Syria are different…It is like, you hate yourself.
This is how Amena*, a 22-year-old refugee woman, described her experience living in Lebanon after fleeing war in Syria, her home country. Amena’s experience is tragic, but it is not unique. She is one of over 1.2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, which sits between Syria and the Mediterranean sea and is a common end point for so many fleeing the five-year long civil war taking place in Syria.
For many Syrian refugee women and girls, the move to Lebanon involves not only a new beginning in a new country but a significant psychological and physical toll. Along with their homes, refugees often lose jobs, resources and the traditional support provided by friends, family and a familiar community. Many women and girls struggle to create social connections in their new environment and have little access to essential medical, legal and mental health services. Conflict and displacement also puts women and girls at increased risk for experiencing physical, sexual and emotional violence – often at the hands of their own family members. Access to gender-based violence services can help to mitigate the effects of such violence on women’s and girls’ health, safety, and well-being.
Our research team met Amena in Wadi Khaled, a conflict-affected region in Lebanon located on the Syrian border. I traveled there to evaluate the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s new approach to mobile gender-based violence service delivery in Lebanon. The program, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the Novo Foundation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), seeks to help women and girls like Amena by offering them free access to emotional support groups, recreational activities and a case worker who provides counseling, psychosocial support and connections to legal, health and other necessary services. This approach is unique: unlike most gender-based violence services that are located in fixed centers, requiring women and girls to travel to them, IRC’s mobile services meet women and girls where they are. One day per week for a period of approximately six months, IRC conducts activities in women’s and girls’ own communities in locations that are comfortable and familiar, such as clinics, mosques and community centers.
Our team of Syrian and Lebanese researchers interviewed IRC staff members and Syrian refugees in communities where IRC conducted the mobile services to learn whether the services provided Syrian refugee women and girls with the safety and support they needed.
Amena and her peers described how, despite the challenges they faced in their new environment, IRC’s mobile service delivery approach gave them a space to form new social connections, improved their relationships with family members, reduced their feelings of distress and isolation and increased their self-confidence.
Strengthening Social Connections
Participating in IRC’s mobile services helped women and girls to broaden social networks within their communities, reducing the number of neighbors who were strangers and expanding their circles of trust. As 24-year-old Bana explained,
We became one group. So when you would talk to your neighbor and she would express her worries and concerns, you’d know what’s bothering her and you’d become closer to her. This is the most important thing – we started to communicate with each other. It’s true we’re neighbors, but we weren’t always together.
The social connections with neighbors and IRC staff that women and girls fostered through the mobile services provided them with emotional support that improved their overall quality of life. Ola, a 35-year-old woman, described why she attended the mobile services,
I wanted to have fun and change my mood… and I have stuff in my heart that I want to speak out… Even only if I am coming for fun and laughs, I am able to speak my heart out… when we meet together, we feel relaxed and psychologically better.
Improving Family Relations
For a number of women and girls, the mobile services improved relationships with husbands, children and siblings by providing stress management and coping techniques and encouraging them to critically consider their own communication styles and the effects of violence in the home. Fourteen-year-old Asil recalled,
I used to yell, scream, and fight a lot. Once we had a session… She [IRC’s adolescent girls assistant] told us that when a girl is at this age, she always feels uncomfortable. She feels annoyed and concerned with anything. Since then, I started thinking, why should I be like these girls? Why should I yell at my mom and hit my brother? And like this. I became a bit better with them.
Reducing Stress and Isolation
Women and girls overwhelmingly described IRC’s activities as a place where women and girls could go to laugh, enjoy themselves, and relieve the stress of daily life, if only temporarily. Sara, a 33 year-old woman, explained,
There was a nice… atmosphere. For example, this one is withdrawn; this one has lost her husband; this one has her husband disappeared. Every one of us is withdrawn, closed to everyone, then you come here, you have fun, you vent a little bit. You have the whole world on your shoulders, then you come here and there’s some chatting, and a nice gathering.
The mobile services gave women and girls the courage and skills to more confidently communicate their opinions, needs, and desires. As 30-year-old Sandra described,
It’s a man’s world here, and everything is forbidden to the woman. [IRC] taught us that even if it won’t be heard, a woman must voice her opinion about anything and such, as in… asserting your presence in the house.
The global refugee crisis has displaced over 59 million people and continues to grow, putting more women and girls like Amena in foreign lands and at risk of experiencing gender-based violence. Our evaluation suggests that the IRC’s mobile service delivery in Lebanon is a promising approach for accessing hard-to-reach populations of women and girls, and in particular refugees, with critical gender-based violence response and mitigation services.
To learn more about ICRW’s evaluation of IRC’s gender-based violence mobile service delivery approach in Lebanon and to view our key recommendations for practitioners, policymakers, and advocates, visit ICRW’s website to read the full-length report and accompanying research brief.
*All names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of participants.