This has been another traumatic year for many women and children. More than 210,000 Syrians have lost their lives and 11million have fled homes in what the UN calls the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Of the estimated 310,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, a staggering 215,000 have fled to the relative safety of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and this figure increases daily. Combined with the influx of nearly 830,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), the KRI has seen a population increase of nearly 28%, placing unsustainable strains on the resources of a host community that has extended its hand to those seeking refuge. A majority of refugees and IDPs are women and children, and despite the generosity of their host community, many women and girls are living in extreme fear and highly precarious situations.
We are pleased to announce that in January 2016 we will launch a pioneering new project providing vital holistic support to Syrian refugees and internally displaced women living in non-camp settings in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. We are able to do this thanks to the fantastic support we received from our donors, led by Lady Alison Deighton who in September raised a record £830,000 for us through the She Inspires Art event and auction.
In an entirely new and brave way of doing a charity art auction, highly sought after contemporary artists created one-of-a-kind pieces especially for the She Inspires Art auction. This vision and bravery spearheaded by Lady Alison Deighton and supported by philanthropists like Ian Taylor and Royce Pinkwater paid off in the amount raised for Women for Women International (WfWI) at a time when there has never been a greater need for our work, enabling us to help Syrian women refugees.
Not only forced to endure displacement-related trauma, such as extreme poverty and coping with the loss of their homes and loved ones, those living in camp and non-camp environments face daily fears of violence and sexual abuse - both within and outside their homes. Women, who are among the most disadvantaged, have become responsible for protecting and providing for themselves and their children with next to nothing in hand. Yet, they bring enormous resilience to the task of survival and step courageously outside traditional roles to keep families afloat.
The sudden, and yet prolonged, influx of refugees and displaced women to the relatively small Kurdistan Region has greatly impacted the region at a time of already challenging economic circumstances. As foreign investments decrease and the population increases, living standards in the region are dramatically deteriorating - leading to fewer jobs, lower wages, and increased poverty at an alarming rate. Rising unemployment and soaring living costs are particularly affecting Syrian refugees and Iraqi IDPs living in host communities (as opposed to refugee camps). With rent as high as $600 per month, nearly a third of households (over 50,000 people) cannot even afford basic items such as food, water, fuel and clothing. Worryingly, 60% of Syrian refugees in non-camp environments are entirely dependent on savings, resorting to unsustainable coping strategies such as borrowing money or arranging the marriages of their daughters for the dowry or bride price when savings run dry.
Mandana Hendessi OBE visits Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Whilst the Kurdistan Region is generally a hospitable host, life remains extremely challenging for refugees and IDPs - especially women and girls. In addition to poverty and economic uncertainty, women and girls are continually threatened with sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Considered a 'cheap commodity' by some local men, UN Women found that over 80% of refugees live in daily fear of abuse, and over two-thirds know someone who has been abused. Not only subjected to humiliating and terrifying abuse in public, women and girls even report feeling unsafe in their own homes, with a significant increase in domestic violence, early and forced marriage, and temporary marriages, particularly amongst households where male relatives are unemployed and suffering from displacement-related stress. On a recent visit to the KRI, WfWI Regional Director Mandana Hendessi OBE, met several local organisations that expressed their grave concerns for the safety of women refugees and IDPs. Citing multiple examples of repeated and prolonged episodes of sexual assault and domestic violence, we have learned that some women are turning to extreme methods of self-harm to become less of a target. The all-encompassing fear present in both men and women is severely restricting women and girls, some of whom are prohibited from enrolling in school or even leaving their homes.
"What we found was beyond belief. Women subjected to repeated and prolonged episodes of sexual assault and domestic violence, turning to self-harm as their only defence against their attackers. How can this be the life that awaits thousands of Syrian women refugees and Iraqi women IDPs who have already witnessed so much horror back home? The world must not fail Syria's women. Now is the time to act." Mandana Hendessi OBE, WfWI Regional Director for Europe, Middle East and Asia, on her findings from her recent visit to the KRI.
The dangers facing women are so palpable and real that UN Women has issued urgent requests for humanitarian agencies in the KRI to provide psycho-social support for traumatised women, as well as livelihood programmes for non-camp based women refugees in order to increase their incomes and reduce their vulnerabilities. Thanks to the funds raised in September, WfWI are working with local NGOs in the KRI to reach the most vulnerable women in need of support, as well as engaging male relatives and community leaders to recruit them as allies in women's social and economic empowerment. We will target those suffering severe emotional trauma, at high risk of sexual and/or domestic violence, and living in extreme poverty.
With over 20 years' experience of working with the most marginalised women in post-conflict communities, WfWI can offer Syrian women refugees and Iraqi women IDPs a chance to rebuild their lives. Combining life-skills and business skills training with psycho-social support, we aim to enable women to develop coping mechanisms to overcome trauma, giving them the confidence to make their own decisions - an essential first step in rebuilding their lives. We will also engage religious and community leaders to address the marginalisation of women and to begin changing attitudes towards women.
You can follow this project next year via our website and social media on www.womenforwomen.org.uk