As the civil war in Syria enters its eighth year, nearly 60 percent of its population live in neighboring Lebanon. The Syrian conflict has created reversed gender roles in families resulting in physical and sexual violence. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) the six types of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) includes rape, sexual assault, physical assault, early and forced marriages, denial of resources or services, and psychological/emotional abuse. All have detrimental effects on refugees, migrants, and their host communities. It is important to remember that the psychological trauma, ill health, poverty and unwanted pregnancy victims experience create life-threatening consequences.
June 19th is the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. As we commemorate this day and remember those affected by this violence, we must bring attention to this specific population and the lives that are impacted daily.
Actual metrics are difficult to confirm due to the social stigma associated with SGBV, the personal security of the survivors, and the reluctance to seek treatment.
However, based on 2017 UNHCR studies of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, we know that the risk of SGBV is greater among unaccompanied girls and adolescents, single mothers, young mothers, and females with special needs. These studies report that 25 percent of sexual assault and violence survivors were girls under the age of 18. Men ranging from 10 to 80 years old, gay, bisexual and other male refugees, are also victims of sexual violence.
Over 50 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty and are totally reliant on humanitarian aid. As a result, most of the refugee population lives on $4 a day. This poverty contributes to child labor and encourages some employers to halt wage payments in demand for sexual favors and other forms of blackmail.
In order to combat SGBV in these impoverished communities, increased awareness among government and humanitarian agencies is needed. Additionally, viable prevention strategies and protection of survivors against intimidation and reprisal must be implemented. Victims should be entitled to specialized medical and psychosocial care, legal services, and safe environments. If survivors are involved in delivering training to medical personnel, greater protection against SGBV and a more effective response to the needs of the population can be achieved. By strengthening the coordination between government, UN and NGO agencies will meet the immediate and long-term mental health needs of the victims, which are key to saving and rebuilding the lives of survivors.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, SeraphimGLOBAL, a U.S. based NGO in Lebanon, has delivered victim-centered education and training in the clinical management of rape and other forms of violence. The curriculum educates medical and health professionals about the unique and critical mental and physical health needs of the SGBV population. The training includes trauma informed interview techniques surrounding stigma, reproductive health complications as a result of rape, and long term mental disorders that survivors endure.
The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is a time to reflect on this type of violence which is occurring in Lebanon, but also in conflict zones all over the world. By recognizing the unique needs of this population and creating the appropriate programs and services, we can then lead survivors down the path of recovery and to leading productive lives.
About the author: Nabil Watfa, Ph.D., is the Director of Health and Humanitarian assistance programs in SeraphimGLOBAL’s Lebanon office. SeraphimGLOBAL is a U.S. based NGO focusing on health and human rights.