As Syria marks the 12-year anniversary of the conflict on Wednesday 15 March, ActionAid is warning that over a decade of instability, displacement, and now a devastating earthquake have left women and girls facing severe trauma, renewed threats of sexual and gender-based violence, and child marriage. Young people, too, have been particularly disenfranchised and traumatised, missing years of education and facing a lack of opportunities.
“The situation for women and girls in Syria before the earthquake was already stark,” Racha Nasreddine, Regional Director of ActionAid Arab Region said. “Crisis upon crisis has been placed on top of communities in the region, with women bearing the biggest brunt. With the needs of women and girls so often an afterthought during crises, we are deeply concerned that fresh disaster will further endanger and put them at even greater risk.”
One woman, Noor, who was displaced already because of the ongoing conflict, recounted the moment the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit her home and the impact it had on her and her three children.
“We were asleep, and suddenly we felt that the ground was shaking beneath us, and we woke up to fear, terror, and the screaming of children. The situation was very bad.”
Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the number of female-headed households – including Noor’s – has increased by 80 percent leaving women like her to grapple with instability, recurring violence, and displacement. With food prices increasing by 40 percent in the last month, coupled with an ongoing cost of living crisis, women like Noor are facing an uphill struggle to meet their families’ basic needs.
“I lost [my husband] about three years ago when I was pregnant with my young son. It is a difficult challenge for a woman to be alone, without a breadwinner, without a family, without anyone beside her. It’s really hard.”
Noor also spoke about the difficulty of life in the camps and how the earthquake has left women and girls at even greater risk than before.
“Life is hard especially in these conditions; war and earthquakes and people taking advantage of this [situation]. Everything became difficult.”
“The current disaster is only exacerbating the risks and vulnerabilities women and girls are facing,” Nasreddine said. “We know that this crisis will fall the hardest on women like Noor who are running out of coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of repeat and renewed crises.”
Records show that reported suicide cases more than tripled last year. Worryingly, girls under 18 made up the largest group (40%) of total recorded deaths by suicide between early 2021 and mid-2022.
Already at increased risk of gender-based violence, ActionAid is concerned that the recent earthquake could increase rates of physical and sexual violence. A sharp increase in food prices could also leave women and girls at further risk of gender-based violence including child marriage.
“As we often see in humanitarian disasters, violence against women and girls gets worse, as tensions rise.” Nasreddine said. “In a recent example, we heard of a women having hot water thrown on her by her husband, because he was unhappy with her using a toilet that men were stood by.”
“Gender-based violence is sadly something that so many women and girls have faced in the last 12 years and will only worsen in the coming weeks and months.”
Before the current crisis, 84 per cent of children lived in locations where child marriage was already an issue for girls due to the economic fallout of the protracted Syrian conflict. And with nine out of ten people in Syria already living below the poverty line women and girls – including pregnant and lactating women – are often eating last and least.
“It’s remarkable to see that 12 years into the conflict Syrian women continue to display incredible resolve, determination, and resilience in the face of crisis after crisis. And although young people have been side-lined, their leadership has been critical during multiple crises in this time,” Nasreddine said.
“It’s vital that we see women and girls not only as victims of a brutal, grinding war but as part of a peace solution that platforms the voices of those that have been most affected by conflict.”
Michelle Higelin, Executive Director at ActionAid Australia adds: “Investing in women’s participation in peacebuilding is a legitimate and proven strategy for ending conflict. Women in Syria have been on the frontlines of the conflict, yet too often their voices and priorities are ignored. After over a decade of war and as communities rebuild from the devastation caused by the Türkiye Syria Earthquake women’s voices and leadership must be prioritised.”
For more information and interviews with ActionAid spokespeople, please contact: [email protected]