Awareness Session for Women - Bekaa, Lebanon
Today, November 25, marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an international UN campaign that calls for the end of violence against women and girls. This year’s theme is “Safety from violence is everyone’s right: safety at home, safety at work, safety on the streets, safety online, and safe reporting.” On this occasion, Reem* shares her story with us.
Thirty-seven-year-old Syrian refugee Reem is a mother to three healthy children, wife to an understanding husband, and member of the women’s community group in Central West Bekaa. For the past five years, she has worked with different organizations to help Syrian refugee girls and women find their voice and stand up to gender-based violence (GBV). But Reem didn’t always have her life together. She hid a painful secret from her husband, her family and her society for almost a decade.
Reem had just lost one of her sons when, in 2011, while seeking safety at a shelter in Aleppo with her three young children, she was sexually assaulted by combatants in the presence of her children. She escaped to Lebanon as a refugee shortly after, only to come close to living her nightmare again when she found herself in compromising situations by her husband’s “business acquaintances”.
For years, Reem lived in fear and deep shame, losing every ounce of her self-confidence. “I didn’t know how to cope and who to turn to. I felt so alone,” said Reem. “I could not confide in my husband as admitting sexual assault is at odds with traditional values and remains a taboo in our society. At the same time, the hardships inflicted by the conflict in Syria and being refugees in Lebanon made my husband increasingly abusive, verbally, with me and the children.”
In 2015, Reem was referred by a friend to UNHCR partner ABAAD, an NGO that works to achieve gender equality. Feeling comfortable enough to open up to one of the case workers, Reem finally spoke out about her traumas and the negative impact they have had on her personality and her role as a mother. Through psychosocial support and awareness sessions, however, she found relief and began regaining a part of herself that she had lost.
Unfortunately, Reem is just one of many victims of GBV, which continues to be under-reported in Lebanon due to social stigmas and cultural norms. According to UNHCR research, conflict and the resulting displacement disproportionately burden women and children, who now comprise around 80 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Stories abound of violence in their homes and outside, perpetrated by loved ones as well as strangers.
“Receiving psychosocial support allowed me to find the courage to confront myself and work through my pain. By attending group awareness sessions, I quickly learned that I am not alone in my struggle because, sadly, many women have been through similar and sometimes worse traumas but together, we can find our individual strength. I also learned about gender equality—a concept I was unfamiliar with at the time—which has been allowing me to raise my boy and two girls in a more gender equitable manner,” added Reem.
As she continued to receive psychosocial support, Reem joined the UNHCR Outreach Volunteer programme and was trained to conduct general awareness sessions with UNHCR partners. Since she was forced to marry at just 16 years old, Reem also began speaking out against early marriages to adolescent Syrian refugees in Lebanon through partners and private projects run by educational institutions.
“Being given the opportunity to lead awareness sessions has empowered me. It boosted my self-confidence and I now feel like I am somebody, like I have a place in society. My relationship with my husband and my in-laws changed for the better as a result, as I started earning more of their respect for my newfound independence,” explained Reem.
The psychosocial support and awareness sessions conducted by UNHCR partner ABAAD do not only target women and girls because, as is widely recognized today, the problem does not end or even begin with women and girls. According to ABAAD, their programmes ensure that boys and men are also provided with the space to release their anger and frustration, while redefining the historical notions of masculinity to ensure that men become allies in the goal of gender equality. This, for instance, has helped Reem’s husband better cope with the frustrations brought about by the socioeconomic crisis in Lebanon and confinements imposed by the pandemic.
“My husband’s friends have also been attending these awareness sessions and their wives have expressed so much gratitude for the positive impact they have had on their families,” added Reem.
Even though Reem has come a long way, she says she would like her journey to go further than this. “I would like to continue to find opportunities where I can spread what I’ve learned to other girls and women and I’m hoping that the external challenges imposed by the socioeconomic crisis and the spread of the pandemic will not stand in the way,” concluded Reem.
On the occasion of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, Reem shared a 16-word message for women struggling with GBV:
Set fear aside, seek help from people you trust, and take back control of your life.
UNHCR supports organizations that play a critical role in preventing and responding to GBV. During the pandemic, UNHCR’s partner ABAAD has been providing remote case management for medium risk cases and digital awareness and psychosocial support for refugees and host communities that discuss, among other topics, gender equality. In-person case management is used only for high risk cases. In addition, ABAAD provides men and boys access to “Anger and Stress Workshops”, psychotherapy, and emotional expression sessions that focus on the use of non-violent communication and, for fathers and other caregivers, the role of positive parenting and the adoption of positive dialogue and coping mechanisms.
*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individual