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Unpacking Gender: The Humanitarian Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan

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Women's Refugee Commission calls for better protection measures, gender-based programs and a switch to long-term planning as new report shows harsh reality of life for women and girls fleeing into Jordan

New York, NY -- On the eve of the third anniversary of the start of the war in Syria, the Women's Refugee Commission is calling for a renewed focus on the needs of the largest and most at-risk group of refugees – women and children – and a switch to long-term planning in the field.

In a report out today, Unpacking Gender: The Humanitarian Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan, the New York-based organization reveals new research carried out in Jordan, where more than half a million Syrian refugees now reside, on how gender needs are being catered for in the humanitarian response.

The report finds real improvements in the way UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations agencies are incorporating gender in planning and programs, such as the presence of a GenCap (Gender Standby Capacity Project) adviser from March 2013.

However, it calls on the humanitarian community to do more to protect and empower women and children – and help refugees prepare for long-term displacement.

"The human impact of this devastating conflict is worsening by the day, with the UN warning that Syria is now among the most dangerous in the world for children and Syrians on course to overtake Afghans as the largest refugee population," said Sarah Costa, Executive Director of the Women's Refugee Commission. "Most of the displaced Syrians are women and children, and the report shows that we need to do far more to ensure their needs are being met by humanitarian organizations on the ground, including a greater focus on capacity-building projects that include collaboration with refugees themselves."

The report finds that UN agencies and international organizations are working at full capacity and trying harder to integrate gender into planning and programming, but women and girls still face huge anxieties in the camps and urban and rural areas, particularly around personal safety, sexual violence and harassment, hygiene, housing and direct access to food and services.

"Conditions may have improved at Zaatari refugee camp, but women still fear public areas – whether it's communal bathrooms built close to each other, without adequate lighting or lockable toilets, or long lines for food and supplies at distribution sites, which one woman told us are 'considered the second highest area of risk of physical violence for women, after the home,'" said Costa. "Food supplies and refugee services are still too often coordinated via the 'head of household,' who is usually male, meaning that women can lack direct access to food vouchers and services, while access to health facilities by women and girls is being hindered by the fact that most are predominantly staffed by male professionals."

Outside the camps, skyrocketing rents have led to severe overcrowding and poor building conditions, with female-headed households being vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords and often subject to physical and sexual exploitation.

Domestic violence is rising and sexual violence persists, and the report finds worrying signs that early marriage – a cultural practice brought from rural Syria – risks becoming more exploitative, with reports that some Syrian girls are marrying older, sometimes non-Syrian, men.

Child protection and gender-based violence groups are working on better safety initiatives, but information about them often fails to reach women and girls in urban and rural areas who are kept indoors, ironically because of safety concerns.


To better protect refugee rights in Jordan and deliver more effective services, humanitarian and development organizations must ensure that technical solutions truly match refugee needs Organizations must help to empower women and girls by recognizing their potential as agents of social change.

Local NGOs and women's rights organizations must be at the heart of this effort, working with international players to get refugees' voices heard, create more safe spaces and develop projects that benefit the host community, as well as training and employing refugees as volunteers.

It is also crucial to address the lack of specialist services for Syrian men, who face their own anxieties as a result of the lack of work and failure to fulfill their breadwinner and protector roles – and who are at constant risk of being drawn into the war.

Donors, the UN and humanitarian agencies need to start to thinking differently about Syrian refugees' needs - shifting from the idea of emergency relief to programs that will build resilience, teach useful skills and have a positive, longer-term impact for the Syrian people.