Op-ed: Put women at the centre of Syria crisis response

By UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, on the occasion of the Brussels IV Syria Conference


As the Syria crisis enters its 10th year, the situation is especially dire for women and girls, with the effects of COVID-19 compounding the risks and hardships for millions of people inside the country and for refugees around the region.

Today nearly 12 million people in Syria require urgent humanitarian assistance and around 4 million depend on cross-border aid. Some 5.7 million Syrians have fled and are now residing in countries throughout the region.

Of those who need humanitarian aid, half are women and girls. Syrian women have higher rates of poverty than men; they face increased risk of gender-based violence; and they shoulder the responsibility of caring for their children and other family members. The rapid spread of COVID-19 is further increasing the risks faced by women.

It is estimated that more than half a million women inside Syria and in host communities throughout the region are pregnant. In some places, pregnant women are refraining from visiting health facilities due to movement restrictions or fears about exposure to the virus. This is putting the lives of women and newborns at risk.

Perhaps most egregiously, the crisis has exposed a shadow pandemic of violence against women, one that has spiked in the face of lockdowns and quarantine measures. UNFPA projects that the pandemic could result in millions more cases of gender-based violence around the world.

COVID-19 is not only a health and protection crisis, it is also a socio-economic crisis threatening the most vulnerable populations and their precarious livelihoods.

The impact of COVID-19 on the Arab States’ economies is likely to be tremendous, with 1.7 million jobs expected to be lost in 2020, including 700,000 jobs for women.

Even before the pandemic, the economic situation of Syrian refugee women was already extremely precarious, with jobs hard to come by and women making up almost 62 per cent of those working in the informal sector, such as daily and agriculture workers.

A UN Women study found that the majority of Syrian refugee women said that finding income to support their families was their main concern. In Lebanon, only 1 per cent of the women in the study had a work permit. In Iraq, while 78 per cent of surveyed refugee women were entitled to legal employment, only 4 per cent had found employment. In Jordan, women got only 5% of the work permits issued to refugees so far.

Despite significant risks and challenges, Syrian women and women’s organizations continue to play a central role in the response to the Syria crisis—in humanitarian assistance and peacemaking efforts, healthcare and education, and in other sectors in their own communities.

Humanitarian actors are working together to advocate, scale up and adapt service delivery to address urgent needs.

Since January 2020, UNFPA has provided life-saving sexual and reproductive health services to nearly one million people in need in countries affected by the Syria crisis, and delivered essential gender-based violence services to more than 420,000 people. In light of COVID-19, UNFPA and partners are providing personal protective equipment to protect health workers, distributing dignity kits that contain essential hygiene and sanitary supplies, and systemizing the use of telemedicine to ensure continued access to reproductive health services.

As donors meet at the Brussels IV Conference on Syria, the needs and rights of women and girls should be front and centre. Let us work together to strengthen their resilience by increasing their livelihood and employment opportunities and including them in all measures to mitigate the economic shocks of COVID-19.

Funding for women’s leadership, economic empowerment, gender-based violence programmes and essential sexual and reproductive health services must match the increased needs we are seeing in Syria and neighbouring countries, including those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than ever, global solidarity, urgency, and predictable and sustained international support is needed for the Syria response. The international community must continue to support local communities as we collectively work for a better Syria during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

After years of conflict, women, girls and all the people of Syria need a future that they can believe in—a future of peace, democracy and equality that we can build together.