Women suffering in silence during times of crisis

Women suffering in silence during times of crisis

Arab women make their way through the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)

On my recent visits to many Arab countries that are going through conflict and/or humanitarian crises, including Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine, I have witnessed diverse forms of grief, but women and adolescent girls’ misery remains mainly unnoticeable. They are the victims of multifold suffering. In addition, where all suffer from water scarcity, a lack of basic services, safety, protection and general violence in the public space, women and adolescent girls are not a priority for opportunities. Adolescent girls are the first to drop out from schools and be prevented from enjoying public spaces, and are the lowest priority for access to the services and support provided by humanitarian actors. Furthermore, statistics show that, during times of crisis, women and adolescent girls are subject to increased gender-based violence.

In humanitarian settings, women shoulder additional duties: They become responsible for responding to and dealing with all their family’s needs, including economic, social affairs, and providing care to children and older people left without support.

Women are also the least likely to have health support as they usually sacrifice their own health and rights for the sake of supporting other family members. In such situations, adolescent girls become more likely to be victims of early and forced marriage. We witness early marriage being used as a tool to solve a family crisis, reduce essential needs, and as a means to prevent what many families wrongly believe is possible shame.

During times of crisis, medical checkups for women decline dramatically, if not vanish altogether. They lean toward not informing their family about their illnesses and hide their pain for the sake of other family members. They never feel that their needs, suffering or pain is high on the list of priorities.

They lean toward not informing their family about their illnesses and hide their pain for the sake of other family members.

Dr. Luay Shabanah

Furthermore, within the humanitarian community, organizations like the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) struggle to include reproductive health kits and other necessities related to women and adolescent girls’ needs in the minimum humanitarian support package. I have witnessed, in countries like Yemen and Libya, how the services provided are not fully sensitive to women and adolescent girls’ particular needs within their context and the cultural behavior of their families. This hinders their ability to access the services and to benefit from such humanitarian support.

Therefore, the provision of lifesaving humanitarian services and support has to be designed with women and adolescent girls in mind, by carefully considering their views and needs, particularly where their needs are being ignored or are not visible enough. Moreover, women and girls should be acknowledged as the first responders to any humanitarian situation and as agents of change. The UNFPA will continue investing in women’s and girls’ resilience and advocating for putting their needs first and calling for women-centered humanitarian assistance.

  • Dr. Luay Shabanah is Regional Director of the United Nations Population Fund for the Arab States.
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