"I am a prey to all men": Refugee women endure poverty, harassment, isolation

DUHOK, Iraq – When 28-year-old Muna* fled the turmoil in Syria three years ago, she did not image she would wind up alone, shouldering sole responsibility for her children’s care, all while under constant threat of abuse and exploitation.

After Muna, her husband and three children escaped the war in Syria, they settled in the Domiz refugee camp in Duhok, Iraq. But life was difficult, with few opportunities, so they decided to follow the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had continued onward to Europe.

Muna’s husband left first, eight months ago, hoping to reach Germany. Smugglers promised to bring Muna and the children soon after.

To raise the funds to pay them, she sold the caravan they were living in. She also notified the camp that they would be leaving.

“I spent the money I had… My children left school when we were preparing to follow their father,” she said.

But the main route to Europe was shut down before they could depart. Muna found herself without a job or home – or protection.

"Harrassed by men everywhere"

Female-headed refugee households are extremely vulnerable. With little to no regular income, these women and their children face crushing poverty. And without traditional community protections, the women endure relentless harassment in the streets, or worse.

As a “lone woman, even if I have children – with the oldest of them 10 – I am a prey to all men,” Muna told UNFPA.

Even living with a cruel husband, she said, “is better than being harassed by men everywhere.”

Making matters more complicated, Muna struggled to get a new shelter assigned to her family because she had formally indicated they would be leaving the camp.

The only people Muna could turn to were distant relatives of her husband.

“I had to move from one house to another, begging them to host us for some time until our housing issue is resolved,” she said, tearing up as she spoke.

A safe space for women

Muna sought help at the Yasmeen Women’s Social Centre, a UNFPA-supported safe space for women. The centre had previously provided counselling and other support to Muna after she arrived in the camp.

“We referred her [to the housing officials] and explained her situation to the camp management,” said Sozdar Suliman, a social worker at the centre. “Fortunately, due to her circumstances as a lone woman, they decided to provide her with a shelter.”

“They also helped me secure a job,” Muna told UNFPA. “Though the payment is little, it helps me secure part of the basics I need for my children.”

Sadly, many refugee women face similar insecurity and hostility, and it can drive them to take drastic action.

Yusra Abdo, another social worker at the centre, said most of women who head their households in Domiz Camp are subject to harassment, and even violence.

Some women are pressured to marry off their daughters to any suitor, regardless of his age or marital status, just to have a man in the family, Ms. Suliman noted.

“We managed to stop several cases of early marriages, as mothers want their daughters to get married for that purpose,” Ms. Suliman recalled, adding that she and her colleagues explained the dangers of child marriage to the women, and tried to assist them in other ways.

“We support them as much as we can,” Ms. Abdo said.

– Khetam Malkawi