A snapshot of UN Women’s work in response to the crisis in Syria


During the ongoing conflict in Syria, UN Women has been actively working to highlight the distinct needs of women and girls, including protection and resilience, and promote their role as meaningful participants in conflict-resolution, peacebuilding and eventual recovery and development. As UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka joins world leaders at the “Supporting Syria and the Region” international pledging conference in London on 3-4 February, we shine a spotlight on UN Women’s work to support Syrian women.

Improved humanitarian response

Refugees getting ready for the train in Gevgelija to travel to the border with Serbia, photo credit: Mirjana Nedeva
Refugees getting ready for the train in Gevgelija to travel to the border with Serbia. Photo: UN Women/Mirjana Nedeva

While women and girls make up 50 per cent of the more than 4.5 million refugees that have fled the conflict in Syria, work still needs to be done to address the challenges faced by women. According to a recent UN Women gender assessment of the refugee and migrant crisis in Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women are rarely at the forefront of humanitarian response planning and implementation. UN Women has been working actively to ensure that the humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria takes the specific needs of women into account.

To follow up on the gender assessment of the refugee and migrant crisis and address the needs of women refugees in the western Balkans, non-food items were distributed at the Krnjaca Reception Center in Serbia. In December 2015, 7,407 refugees, including 3,306 women, were given hats, scarfs, shirts socks and other non-food by UN Women. Oxfam partner Grupa 484 assisted in delivering the items.

Safe spaces and livelihoods training

Children play outside at the Za'atari camp in Jordan. Photo: UN Women/ Christopher Herwig

UN Women is on the ground in Jordan, one of the countries that has received the largest influx of Syrians refugees who have escaped the conflict. More than 80,000 have sought shelter in the Za’atari refugee camp, where UN Women and WFP are working together to provide economic empowerment programmes specifically for women and girls. In cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Women is also ensuring at least 500 women have food.

A Syrian woman at the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. (UN Women/ Christopher Herwig)
A Syrian woman at the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: UN Women/ Christopher Herwig

The “Oasis” initiative runs three safe spaces for women and girls, which offer opportunities to earn an income, protection referral services, daycare services, and life skills training such as Arabic and English literacy, sewing and computer classes. More than 5,000 Syrian women and girls visit ‘Oases’ safe spaces in the Za’atari camp per month, and several hundred have independently earned incomes through their cash-for-work programmes through which they make kits for newborn babies and school uniforms for boys and girls, in close partnership with UNICEF.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka takes part in jewelry-making activities during a visit to the Za'atari refugee camp for Syrian refugees during her trip to Jordan from 20 to 23 February 2014. Photo: UN Women Jordan/Abdullah Ayoub
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka takes part in jewelry-making activities at the Women and Girls Oasis during a visit to the Za'atari refugee camp for Syrian refugees. Photo: UN Women Jordan/Abdullah Ayoub

“We can support even more people, both Jordanians and Syrians, and prove that this model of cooperation can work,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said during a visit to UN Women’s Oasis safe space at the Za’atari camp in 2014. “But the most important thing is to have peace in Syria, the biggest thing we can give these women is the possibility to go back to a peaceful Syria.”

A voice in peace talks

In addition to supporting migrant and refugee Syrian women and girls, UN Women has long been working to ensure that the voices of Syrian women are heard and included in peace negotiations, in January 2014, UN Women facilitated nearly 50 Syrian women to come together from within and outside Syria to appeal for peace at a conference in Geneva. They called for a voice in the ongoing political negotiations on their country and drew the world's attention to the ongoing tragedy their people face. Hear their voices »

Photo: UN Women
Approximately 50 Syrian women surround UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, (centre-left) and UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi (centre-right) at the conference in Geneva. Photo: UN Women

UN Women has been working with the Office of the UN Special Envoy to Syria to support efforts to ensure Syrian women’s involvement in peace talks. At the UN peace talks in Geneva that began on 1 February, a Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, with 12 independent Syrian women civil society representatives, was formally included in the official delegation for the first time. Read statement by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka »

Tracking and responding to gender-based violence

UN Women has worked to track gender-based violence among Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, publishing the “We Keep Silent” report in 2014, which revealed most men feared for the safety of their wives and/or daughters, increased levels of intimate partner violence, high levels of sexual harassment by employers and taxi drivers, and reports of commercial sexual transactions inside and outside of camps.

GBV and child protection among Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a focus on early marriage.

Taking a similar look at the situation in Jordan, UN Women published a report in 2013, which revealed that rates of early marriage are strikingly high (more than one half of women were married as children), that restrictions on the mobility of women and girls limit their access to work and aid supplies, and that 83 per cent of Syrian refugees were unaware of services for survivors of violence. 

UN Women has also reiterated the need for sex-disaggregated data collection in all humanitarian settings, to better inform priorities.

In the Za’atari camp in Jordan, UN Women also provides protection referral services on issues from sexual and gender-based violence to legal status and disability, with awareness-raising programmes to support the engagement of men and boys in response and prevention. Such work has also involved forging partnerships and initiating advocacy campaigns between governments and women’s groups to shift societal attitudes, end stigma and uphold the dignity of survivors.

Restoring Dignity and Building Resilience cover page

Independent monitoring

To ensure the Za’atari-based programming is achieving its desired impact in all areas, UN Women commissioned an independent researcher to conduct a monitoring of its work in the camp. The report presented reflects the findings of programme monitoring undertaken in 2015. The data highlights the importance of engaging people productively to build gender equality and combat violence against women, while also enhancing household dietary diversity and food security through increased household spending. Respondents—both male and female—highlighted economic opportunities as the key priority for international support. The report notes, using inter-agency data, that currently there are roughly 6,400 cash-for-work opportunities available per day in camp settings, of which women receive 24 per cent. The majority of women interviewed—75 per cent—state a preference for working outside the home.

Learn more about UN Women’s work with Syrian refugees in Jordan:

Restoring dignity: Programming in Za'atari refugee camp
UN Women's programming: Syria crisis response in Jordan