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Refugee Women Contend With Domestic Abuse, Sexual Exploitation


FILE - Shoppers walk along the main street of the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut.

FILE - Shoppers walk along the main street of the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut.

Palestinian women in Lebanon who are long-term refugees understand the problems faced by women who have fled the Syrian civil war - they share similar hardships and also contend with domestic abuse as well as sexual exploitation.

The dozen Palestinian refugee women at a focus group session arranged for VOA by a local NGO (non-government organization) could hardly contain themselves when asked about the specific challenges they face; they talked over each other, desperate to vent their frustrations.

They said living in exile in camps amid rising insecurity and contending with economic hardship is bad enough, but there is also a heavy toll on their family lives with an increase in domestic abuse. All dozen women said they experienced beatings at the hands of their husbands.

A mother of two, Sameeha, said the pressures have an effect on the psychological wellbeing of all the family - parents and children alike. She said it is like a ticking bomb and explodes frequently. One woman admits that she can be as violent as her husband and takes it out on the children.

Zeinab, who has three kids, said her husband starts beating her and the children when he feels under pressure.

The hour-long session with the women took place at Ain el-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp an hour south of Beirut.

More than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, half of them in a dozen camps spread across the country. Never easy, camp life has become much harder since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria.

The camp’s pre-Syrian civil war population of 80,000 has been swollen with the addition of 20,000 or more Syrian refugees, mostly ethnic Palestinians. That is straining the resources of the camp, which is made up for the most part of poorly-built two-story buildings on narrow streets. Rents and the price of food have jumped. Competition for jobs, mostly day laboring, has become fiercer and the Syrians are willing to work for lower wages. Meanwhile, the camp is experiencing increased violent rivalry between armed Palestinian and Islamist factions.

NGOs are struggling to assist the women in the camp. Cultural norms dictate against the airing of family problems and the women say their husbands will not agree to family counseling.

“He refused directly,” said one woman when asked about her husband’s thoughts on participation.

The Palestinians have sympathy for the newly arrived refugees from Syria, who they are aware are often more vulnerable. Many of the Syrian women are without husbands, who are either dead or chose to remain behind in Syria.

A Lebanese psychologist, who asked not to be named, said there is a high incidence of sexual abuse and exploitation by male relatives and neighbors among the Syrian refugees, who mostly live in a confined ”tent city” within Ain el-Hilweh.

The psychologist said mothers who come to her want to find ways of stopping the abuse of daughters; younger women do not know what to do and are afraid of disclosing to other relatives the abuse they are enduring.

The problems of domestic and sexual abuse among refugee communities in Lebanon are of mounting concern to international and local NGOs who are trying to develop strategies to help.
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