In an exclusive interview with InPEC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, comments on the gendered environment that can confront women and children in a crisis situation.
By InPEC editor Abdulaziz Almuslem, 14th June, 2015
Abdulaziz: High Commissioner, thank you for talking with InPEC. The purpose of this interview is to highlight some of the gendered challenges facing some of the refugee women and children. We hope to hear your honest insights on how these challenges may be overcome, to help mitigate the suffering of the millions of people fleeing conflict zones. The first question is about the number registered marriages in the refugee camps. Last year, 32% of the registered marriages in the refugee camps in Jordan involved girls under the age of 18, this is a 14% increase from the number of child marriages during peacetime Syria. The heads of the households, usually men, tend to marry off their child daughters as a coping mechanism. As the High Commissioner, what do you think is the best tactic to tackle this negative coping mechanism?
HC: The best tactic is to guarantee a normal life for these families – to guarantee that members of the family get a job, to guarantee that these girls can go to school, to guarantee that people do not need to have these coping mechanisms to survive. Unfortunately, the level of assistance that is provided to the Syrian refugees in Jordan, but not only in Jordan, is extremely limited. Eighty six percent of the Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and many of them in extremely difficult circumstances, and we see many people using coping mechanisms – not only that but children dropping out of school, child labor, prostitution, early marriages. Hopefully, the international community will understand that much more support needs to be done as unfortunately the war goes on and on. As one of the things that is happening, is that life is becoming more and more difficult – savings disappear, time makes it more and more hopeless. And so unfortunately, if the international community does not understand that much more support is required for the Syrian refugees and for those communities that have received them we will witness progressive deterioration of the living conditions, but also the most elementary rights of the people.
Abdulaziz: The Syrian household is traditionally a male-dominated household. Do you think the UNHCR should do anything with societies that have a gender bias during UNHCR’s humanitarian response?
HC: It is not only the Syrian society that is male dominated. We are far from having true gender equality all over the world. But in many conservative families the situation of the women are still particularly vulnerable, that is why we believe that anything that can help the empowerment of women namely in the refugee context would be useful, not only as a protection for the women, but also as a measure to improve the conditions of the communities to which they belong.
Abdulaziz: What would you like to see the neighboring states do to assuage the suffering of women and children in a crisis situation?
HC: Ideally, of course, the neighboring states would be able to provide for the refugees, normal living situations. That would mean normal living, education, free health care, the possibility to work, and all those other aspects that allow people to have a common life. But we have to understand that they face enormous economic challenges with this heavy pressure that they have employment difficulties, their infrastructure is cracking, and so to make these possible we need much stronger international support. Unfortunately, they are all middle-income countries, which means that there is very little international support to them, and even more so if you consider the dramatic impact of the refugee presence and the Syrian crisis as a whole. And so I’m afraid the living conditions of the Syrian refugees in the neighborhood will become even more difficult in the near future.
Abdulaziz: Thank you for talking with InPEC High Commissioner.