Shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ghadeer, a woman from Homs, Syria, told humanitarian actors of the violence she witnessed against the backdrop of the lockdowns that came in response to the pandemic.
“I met many women who also face violence at the hands of their husbands, violence has clearly increased. A friend told me that she is constantly suffering from domestic abuse since her husband lost his job."
Ghadeer once witnessed a wife being beaten in front of her children.
These stories paint a painful picture of the stark reality that women and girls continue to face in Syria. In March, the crisis in the country officially entered its 10th year, effectively marking one of the most protracted and complex crises our world is facing today. A decade later, Syria continues to experience an array of instabilities and challenges that continue to put the lives of innocent people at risk. With COVID-19 creating a crisis within a crisis, the consequences of insufficient action can be dire.
Today, of the estimated 11.7 million people in need inside Syria, 5.9 million are women and girls, exposed to an array of increased risks that include greater restrictions on movement for women and girls, family violence, forced and early marriage, and sexual and domestic violence. Meanwhile, an additional 5.7 million Syrians are refugees throughout the region and beyond. And even as parts of Syria appear to be stabilising, the situation is far from stable, particularly given the ongoing conflicts and mass displacements in the country’s northern region as well as increasing instability in parts of the south. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic ramifications of COVID-19 will inevitably produce further protection concerns and other challenges, including socio-economic, for a significant portion of the Syrian population.
This month, the international community convenes during the Brussels IV Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region. In the run-up to this dialogue taking place, it is critical to understand the various dimensions of vulnerability from a needs perspective. The situation in Syria not only remains critical but has arguably become even more volatile due to the advent of COVID-19, which presents a myriad of health and socioeconomic challenges for the country and its people, both inside Syria and in host communities region-wide. Moreover, the cumulative effects of 10 years of instability have created a number of far-reaching structural challenges, including disruptions in community networks and safety nets that complicate the delivery of life-saving services. This situation is further compounded by a rapidly deteriorating socio-economic situation, increasing food insecurity and poverty across the country. The risks or deprioritisation of women's health and protection in the given context is very real and needs to be addressed hands-on.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) -- the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency -- firmly believes in a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. This is precisely why UNFPA has continuously advocated for the fundamental right of every woman and girl to access quality sexual and reproductive health services and to be protected from gender-based violence (GBV). Today, it is estimated that more than half a million women inside Syria and female refugees throughout the region are pregnant. Providing them with medicines, equipment, midwives’ and doctors’ support, and working collectively to support basic rehabilitation of healthcare facilities in devastated communities, should remain a key priority for the global response to this crisis. Failing to do so will mean that more mothers and their infants will die, particularly in the time of COVID-19.
In 2019, UNFPA provided life-saving sexual and reproductive health services to nearly 2.4 million individuals in Syria crisis countries throughout the region. Maintaining and even expanding this life-saving work will require the continued collaboration of the international community, including through the maintenance and increase of flexible, multi-year funding to allow actors to respond effectively to the multifaceted challenges on the ground. Meanwhile, responding to GBV in 2020 will require taking the challenges presented by COVID-19 in perspective, and ensuring that any response takes gender, gender inequality, and the restrictions of movement that have accompanied this pandemic into consideration. These programmes must be made even more accessible to adolescent girls, who continue to be the most at-risk segment to GBV and life-threatening early pregnancies.
UNFPA has updated its 2020 regional Syria response to include funds required to respond to COVID-19, with an estimated total appeal of $137 million. This includes $6.5 million geared towards responding to the pandemic and its ramifications for women, girls and young people throughout the region.
Ensuring that gender issues, gender equality, and women’s rights are consistently considered when tailoring resilience programmes is of paramount importance, particularly those that attempt to stave off the worst impacts of both the crisis itself and the COVID-19 pandemic. Such programmes are not only effective at delivering short-term support to people in need, but also stand to address many of the long-term structural challenges and socioeconomic ramifications of this crisis.
By Dr. Luay Shabaneh, the Regional Director for Arab States with the United Nations Population Fund.