THE BLOG
03/07/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

Syria's Survivors: Are We Doing Enough for Displaced Women and Children?

On International Women's Day, the Women's Refugee Commission reviews the humanitarian response and throws light on the harsh realities of refugee life

As the crisis in Syria rages into its fourth year with no political solution in sight, the human consequences grow ever more serious -- with Syrians set to overtake Afghans as the world's largest refugee population.

International Women's Day (March 8) is a good opportunity to reflect on whether humanitarian organizations helping those fleeing the war-torn country are getting it right for the largest, and most vulnerable, group of refugees -- women and children.

With more than half a million Syrian refugees now in Jordan, the Women's Refugee Commission took this question to international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working there, and to local women's groups and refugees in both the 105,000-strong Zaatari refugee camp and urban areas, where more than 80 percent of the displaced Syrians reside.

Amidst the tragedy and chaos, we found a mixed picture of the international response. Hasty planning at the start of the crisis meant that the specific needs of women and young people were often ignored. And while data about refugees' sex and age was collected -- a step forward from previous emergencies -- it wasn't used.

Perhaps the greatest anxiety for camp residents and Syrians in Jordanian towns and cities, particularly women and girls, remains personal safety. Women in camps fear public areas --bathrooms, for example, built very close to each other, often communal, without adequate lighting or lockable toilets.

Harassment in long lines for food and basic supplies is routine. According to one interviewee, "distribution sites are considered the second highest area of risk of physical violence for adult women, after the home."

Conditions have recently improved at Zaatari, with most residents now living in more secure trailers as opposed to tents, and separate lines and waiting spaces for women at distribution points. But there is still a lot to do.

Outside the camps, the situation is more precarious. Skyrocketing rents have led to severe overcrowding and poor building conditions. Female-headed households are especially vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous landlords, and often subject to physical and sexual exploitation.

Structural inequalities in the distribution of food, supplies and information, where registration for refugee services is via "head of household" -- usually male -- and communications are made via male camp "street leaders," mean that women can lack direct access to food vouchers and services.

In this volatile environment, domestic violence is rising and sexual violence persists. WRC found worrying signs that early marriage, a cultural practice brought by some from rural Syria, is becoming more exploitative, with Syrian girls marrying older, sometimes non-Syrian, men.

While child protection and gender-based violence groups are working towards better safety initiatives, information about these initiatives often fails to reach women and girls in urban and rural areas who are kept indoors (ironically because of safety concerns). Access to health facilities by women is also hindered by the fact that most are still predominantly staffed by male professionals.

Finally, we noted a scarcity of specialist services to support Syrian men, who face their own anxieties as a result of the lack of work and failure to fulfil their breadwinner and protector roles, and who are at constant risk of being drawn into the war.

The Jordan example shows that, while the humanitarian community is improving its understanding of the needs of women and girls, and integrating gender concerns into crisis planning and programming, enormous challenges remain.

To better protect refugee rights in Jordan and deliver more effective services, humanitarian and development organizations must ensure that technical solutions truly match needs and, where possible, help to improve individuals' coping strategies and empower them.

This should focus on nurturing the excellent efforts of local NGOs and women's rights organizations, and community involvement initiatives such as International Relief and Development's training of women refugees as community outreach walkers.

As the Syrian conflict hits its third anniversary, donors, the UN and international and local NGOs now need to start to think differently about Syrian refugees' needs -- shifting from the notion of emergency relief to programs that will build resilience, teach useful skills and have a positive, longer-term impact for the Syrian people.