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Gender in action: Successes and shortfalls in the Syrian refugee crisis

Among the humanitarian agencies responding to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan, real progress has been made towards a better understanding of the gendered needs of displaced people and the incorporation of gender-sensitive policies. Nevertheless, challenges remain to ensure that this translates into effective service provision – and that the community does not ignore the “change maker” potential of women and girls. Here, US-based NGO the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) gives us its assessment of the situation in Jordan.

The need to address the specific gendered needs of women, girls, boys and men in the response to a crisis has been the focus of much dialogue and many pledges in the humanitarian community in recent years. In the ongoing Syrian context, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) has found a mixed picture of successes and shortcomings.

In December 2013, WRC carried out research in camp and urban settings in Jordan to examine how effectively agencies are incorporating gender into humanitarian response– and crucially, whether opportunities are being taken to promote gender equality and empowerment.

The good news is that UN agencies and international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) are clearly making greater efforts to integrate gender into planning and programming processes, and to better monitor progress. The introduction of the GenCap (Gender Standby Capacity Project) adviser in March 2013 – bringing training and tools to the frontlines and promoting integration of the gender marker in all sectors’ plans for the Regional Response Plan (RRP6) – together with investment in gender policies and greater public interest in issues facing women and girls, has helped to bring about change.

Unfortunately, however, systematic gender analyses were seldom conducted to assess women’s and men’s roles and responsibilities and their access to resources, often resulting in programmatic interventions based on assumptions, short-term planning and cultural bias. And while sex- and age-disaggregated data about Syrian refugees was collected early in Jordan – a real step forward – there was scant evidence that this was used in the design and implementation of specific programmes for women, girls, boys and men.

Despite increased gender awareness and access to relevant guidelines, ongoing gaps remain in the efforts to meet practical gendered needs across all sectors, with opportunities for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment being missed.

In the food security and distribution sector, for example, positive steps to incorporate gender into service provision have seen separate distribution lines for men and women, and the needs of pregnant and lactating women being taken more into account. However, the main challenge remains the desperately long waiting times for food; women report being “the object of unwanted attention during distributions… some women were asked for sexual favors in exchange of humanitarian goods.” Distribution sites for food and non-food items are “considered the second highest area of risk of physical violence for adult women, after the home.”Distributions of non-food items (NFIs) initially failed to take gendered needs into account, with items like diapers and sanitary pads left out of packs, and women heads of household, who were unable to leave their children alone at home, having a hard time securing supplies. Many organisations realised the importance of home delivery to ensure women can choose and receive the right items – and are now employing both men and women in assessment and distribution teams.

In the health sector, providers are offering reproductive services like birth kits for mothers, and monthly nappy services. For pregnant women in the Zaatari camp, several hospitals provide natural and caesarean deliveries. Women living outside the camp in host communities, however, did not always know where to find delivery services. Furthermore, despite an early awareness that female staff and doctors were needed to serve Syrian women, health facilities remain staffed mostly by male doctors and medical professionals.

Meanwhile, the growing need for urgent psychosocial and mental health support for refugees is being addressed through programmes serving children and young men and women separately, though many daughters are kept indoors for safety reasons, hindering their access. And while many agencies offer these services to women, very few work directly with men, who face their own pressures as a result of the disruption of their expected role as breadwinners and protectors.

Vocational programmes aimed at young men and women who are out of school typically follow stereotypical gender lines; hairstyling and jewellerymaking for women, for example, and carpentry and agriculture for men. Encouragingly, many organisations are offering computer and language skills for both – and going forward, there is great potential for support for those occupations and skills which fall outside of traditional gender boundaries.

Overall, personal security remains a top concern for refugees in both camp and urban settings, with specific risks for women and girls. There have been improvements at Zaatari, with most residents now living in trailer-like containers rather than tents, but violence and unrest present an ongoing dilemma. The situation is more precarious for the estimated 80 per cent of refugees who live outside the camps, where skyrocketing rents are causing severe overcrowding and poor conditions, and female-headed households are often vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous landlords. In this volatile environment, domestic violence and sexual violence persist.

While services to address gender-based violence (GBV) were slow to appear in Jordan – the first GBV prevention training did not take place until August 2013 – the creation of standard operating procedures on GBV and child protection is seen as an important step, as well as a key opportunity to help build capacity of the international and local organisations and government ministries which participated.

Women and girls on the ground understand only too well that in order to see real improvements in their lives, male attitudes and behaviors must be addressed more explicitly. It is the time for organisations to work more closely with men and boys on gender equality and GBV.

There is a great deal that the humanitarian community can do to better incorporate gender into planning and programming. For a start, more frequent gender analyses would provide the data needed to design and implement effective, responsive programmes that address the real needs of women, girls, boys and men.

INGOs and UN agencies should also work more collaboratively with local groups to improve understanding, support ground-up community initiatives, build local capacity and improve host community relations, as well as to learn from successful gender-smart initiatives.

Collaboration with Syrian refugees themselves is also crucial for positive and sustainable change, and is already proving fruitful in initiatives such as the child protection committees created by Save the Children International and Un Ponte Per/Jordanian Women’s Union to minimise the risks to adolescent girls and raise awareness of child protection risks, and International Relief and Development (IRD)’s training of 500 mostly women refugees to be community outreach and health workers.

In addition to addressing urgent practical needs in the Syria response, now is also the time to ask broader questions about the strategic needs of women and girls, and women’s participation in social, governance and political structures. Existing gender policies in the Syrian context and elsewhere tend to focus on women as vulnerable and needy, rather than recognising their potential to be part of the solution. While programmes that address protection issues are vital, so are those which help to improve individuals’ coping strategies and access to the resources needed for greater empowerment and equality. By shifting their perception of women and girls as victims to women and girls as change makers, humanitarian actors can capitalise on the potential for social change that a period of upheaval presents. Being a refugee is stressful, frightening and often dangerous, but the situation can also present new possibilities; as one interviewee put it, “Conflicts can bring about reflections and possibilities for change; war brings about transformation in gender roles which I think may also be happening now; but we have to also seize the opportunity.”

For the humanitarian community, this means engaging with and supporting the local feminist and women’s rights organisations at the forefront of promoting women and girls’ empowerment. We can learn from initiatives which build the capacity of refugee women and girls, local activists and staff, to speak on their own behalf and organise collectively.

Donors, INGOs and UN agencies must now listen to these voices and work together to better meet the long-term needs of the Syrian refugee population, to help build resilience and to implement gender-sensitive and gender-integrated programming that promotes equal access and opportunity for all – women, girls, boys and men.

Nine months on

In August 2014, WRC returned to Jordan. It was clear that there have been some positive changes since the report was published, including increased gathering, analysis and use of gender data. For example, safety audits in the Zaatari camp involve not only the protection unit but all sectors. Additionally, the GenCap Adviser has produced a gender dashboard, a systemic monitoring system which tells what is working well, what needs improvement and what is not working. This will help ensure that there is more equitable access to humanitarian resources by age and sex.

Dale Buscher is Senior Director for Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, email: DaleB@wrcommission.org

The Women’s Refugee Commission’s report Unpacking Gender: The Humanitarian Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan is available at http://wrc.ms/1lEfxlO, and you can find out more about the Women’s Refugee Commission at https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org


NOTE: This article is a pre-print of and article that has been published in Gender & Development 22(3): 574-577.