Refugee settlements must be sensitive to gender

The number of child refugees arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean has tripled over the last year, with many fleeing conflict in Syria.

The magnitude of the crisis, the worst in 60 years, is staggering. More than 4.5 million people - most of them women and children – have already fled Syria since the conflict began five years ago, and the crisis shows little signs of abating. 

We know from our 80 years of experience as a global child rights charity that it is children, especially girls, who are the most vulnerable and at risk during conflict. Those who make the perilous journey from Syria to settlements in neighbouring countries are often physically exhausted and mentally traumatised.

One such survivor is 11 year old Doha. Recalling her last living memory of her home in Syria she says, "I remember that we ran out the door and a moment later a bomb hit the house next door. There was smoke everywhere and huge blasts and gunshots." 

Thankfully, Doha arrived in a Plan International Egypt settlement with her mother and brother. While in the settlement, Doha has benefited from a gender-sensitive approach. She has been supported with child and gender friendly spaces in her educational setting as well as psychosocial support. This integrated approach provides children like Doha with much needed protection and a greater sense of normality. 

Doha arrived in Egypt with her family, but not all girls fleeing the conflict and humanitarian crises are so fortunate. The numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in Europe quadrupled from 2013 to 2015. In particular girls face unique and frightening challenges. Rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, and human trafficking are all real risks. While the barriers those with disabilities encounter are further intensified by the turmoil of war.

Our work on the ground with Syrian refugees in Egypt and the Middle East highlights the necessity for refugee settlements to be established as family, child and gender-sensitive spaces.

From ensuring female staff are trained to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, to simple measures such as sex-separate shower and latrine facilities - these measures help to create safe spaces for girls. Especially as many girls, up until receiving support, may have felt vulnerable, afraid and in constant danger.

Crucially, helping girls to rebuild their lives gradually involves providing them with an education. Girls are usually the first to be taken out of school during conflict and humanitarian crises, often driven by economic factors or social norms surrounding girls and their right to an education.

For those fleeing Syria, conflict has been a major obstacle to their learning. Many have been without education for a worrying amount of time – schools have been destroyed, or are barely functioning, and for those on the move regular attendance is almost impossible. By providing girls in settlements with an education, we can help them to realise their potential - giving them hope for a better life.

In Egypt, we have already supported thousands of families, children, women and girls with safe spaces, education and psychosocial support. Over the next few years we are helping nearly 60,000 Syrian children in Greater Cairo, Alexandria, and Damietta, including refurbishing 40 public schools. But, we cannot do this alone.

One in every 122 people globally is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Of course this poses great challenges, but they are not insurmountable. We need the international community, governments and agencies to ensure all settlements are family, child and especially gender-sensitive. In doing so, we can help to ease the pain many of these families, mothers and daughters will have experienced and give them the chance at a better future.

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