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Q&A with Dr. Rouba Mhaissen: Syrian Women Refugees in Lebanon

In this Q&A on Syrian women refugees in Lebanon, TIMEP interviews Dr. Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid​​, a nonprofit organization that supports Syrian refugees​ in Lebanon​, and Sawa Foundation UK, that supports forced migrants in Europe and the Middle East​.

As the world marks International Women’s Day, TIMEP speaks to women advocates across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region on the ways in which they are challenging the roots of gender inequality.

In this Q&A on Syrian women refugees in Lebanon, TIMEP interviews Dr. Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid​​, a nonprofit organization that supports Syrian refugees​ in Lebanon​, and Sawa Foundation UK, that supports forced migrants in Europe and the Middle East​.

TIMEP: How has the spread of COVID-19 affected the displaced women with whom you work in Lebanon?

RM: COVID-19 impacted Syrian refugees generally harder than any other community because of the discriminatory measures that had already been imposed against them as refugees. Because of the low levels of protection they had by nature of them being refugees, they could not isolate or take appropriate measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, notably the economic impact. 

Most female-headed households, and women in general, have had to carry huge burdens, as men and families began to stay at home. This increased the workload at home and the stress that these women refugees had because their children were no longer going to school and their husbands were not leaving the tents. In addition to that, most of these women who are female heads of households used to work in the informal market; all of these jobs were completely halted during COVID-19, which really impacted their ability to earn income, coupled with the additional care and household responsibilities they had to take on. We also saw an increase in gender-based violence due to the stress of COVID-19 and the economic situation that followed the August 4th blast in Beirut. 

TIMEP: How would you describe some of the most significant issues impeding or implicating women’s equal access to rights among the populations with whom you work?

RM: A lot of women in the refugee camps are carrying a huge load because in Lebanon, women are more mobile than men. In a lot of communities, men are restricted from going out and leaving the tents, so women have to take on both the housework and work outside the home. However, the jobs that these women refugees have are often through the shaweesh, the person in charge of the camp, who is very monopolistic, authoritative, and patriarchal in the way that he deals with women. Often, the shaweesh does not pay them their full dues. The women work and they don’t get paid. 

There aren’t legal frameworks to protect refugees in general and women in particular in Lebanon. Because many refugees are undocumented, they don’t benefit from legal structures or paradigms that would otherwise protect them. A lot of the women refugees have lost their husbands, or they’ve gotten married and had children, but they do not have legal documentation, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to monopolistic and patriarchal behaviors in their families, communities, municipalities, and in the country as a whole. 

TIMEP: What role has Sawa for Development & Aid and civil society at-large played in protecting the rights of refugees, and specifically women refugees?

RM: We at Sawa lead several forms of protection programming for refugees; in fact, protection is mainstreamed across all of our work. We have protection programs specifically for children and their parents. We have legal programming and psychosocial support, both personal and on the group level. We have programs with youth and men. 

Specific to women programming, we have gender-based violence mitigation and prevention support. We work with victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and we work with the community at large, both men and women, to mitigate SGBV, to deal with the root causes of SGBV in the community, and to provide legal protection for women who don’t have the legal structures to protect them in their daily lives. 

When it comes to return, we are also advocates that Syria is not safe for refugee return. It is not legal to push refugees to return prematurely, so we also work a lot on programming related to this.

TIMEP: What should government authorities, international organizations, and the international community at-large be doing to better realize equal rights for Syrian refugees, and Syrian women refugees specifically?

RM: We need to continue pushing neighboring countries to protect Syrian refugees, especially countries like Lebanon which have not signed the Refugee Convention. We need to push them to recognize refugees as individuals who have rights. We need to continue underlining non-refoulement, the principle that refugees have the right to choose when to go back, if and when Syria is deemed safe for return. We need to continue pushing for UNHCR to register refugees, as well as to continue pushing for refugees to be granted civil documentation, whether for their undocumented children or undocumented marriages. And finally, we need to push for countries to allow refugees to work in the labor market because otherwise they will not become independent.

This interview is part of TIMEP’s Forging a Gender Equal World: Women in MENA Q&A series, a collection of interviews with women from and in the MENA region on their work combating gender inequality. 


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