With women and girls making up more than half of the registered Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, and with nearly 40 per cent of refugee households in the country headed by women, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, called for stronger action to protect and empower women refugees.

The UNICEF and UNHCR Chiefs, on a joint visit to Lebanon as the world celebrates International Women’s Day and as the Syria conflict nears its seven-year mark, heard direct testimonies from some of the women and girls who were forced to flee the war and seek safety in neighbouring Lebanon.

The women, who now live in a tented refugee settlement in Baalbek, in the Bekaa valley approximately 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, are part of a group trained in child protection and sexual and gender-based violence issues and now works with other refugees to help raise awareness and make a difference in their communities.

The women highlighted early marriage and lack of education as their top concerns.
“On International Women’s Day, I say to every woman: be strong, be yourself, be independent and have self-confidence,” said Kholoud, a 37-year old refugee mother of two from Syria.

“Women and girls represent both the tragedy of Syria and the hope for its future,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “These grassroots initiatives are a crucial tool in tackling sexual and gender-based violence, but also empowering women to contribute to community welfare and reconciliation.”

“As the deadly conflict in Syria prepares to enter yet another year, it continues to leave children homeless, uneducated and traumatized,” said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “Young girls in particular have seen their hopes of a better future crushed, as more and more of them are forced to work or marry instead of going to school. In Lebanon alone, 40 per cent of Syrian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18, becoming wives and mothers while still children themselves.”

The humanitarian tragedy of Syria is now written into the very fabric of families forced from their homes, with a lasting and particular impact on women and children – who now make up nearly three quarters of Syrian refugees across the Middle East and North Africa.

In Lebanon, studies have shown that female-headed households are more vulnerable and at increased risk of exploitation, and on average have less food and worse diets, higher poverty levels and are almost twice as likely to live in informal tented settlements.

As Syrian refugees in Lebanon become more vulnerable across the board – with over three quarters now living below the poverty line – these households also represent mothers who worry about how to put food on the table, keep a roof over their children’s heads, provide them with health and education and make sure they have a better future.

Harnessing the full potential of women and girls is not possible until this brutal conflict ends. As the leaders of two humanitarian agencies with a large presence on the ground, Mr. Grandi and Ms. Fore expressed outrage at the horrific levels of civilian suffering in Syria and appealed for political action to end the bloodshed and allow humanitarians sustained access to meet the sheer scale of human misery and needs on the ground.