'Sweden’s flexible and crucial contributions to UNHCR are used to combat SGBV and strengthen and create resilience for survivors like Maya, who was forced to flee her home in Syria.
© UNHCR/Nadine Alfa

Sweden empowers refugee women and girls

Over 65 million people, half of whom are women and girls, have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, war and persecution. Sweden has made it a core priority to protect and empower women and girls, and is at the global forefront in leading efforts to advocate for refugee women’s and girls’ rights, strengthen gender equality and to combat sexual and gender-based violence.

The Story of Maya

Maya*, 35, fled Syria in 2012, believing the worst was behind her. Flanked by her husband and four children, two boys and two girls, she knew starting over in neighboring Lebanon would be difficult but she thought her children would at least be safe. They escaped the bombings, air strikes, and bloodshed but they didn’t find immediate peace across the border.

Soon after arriving in Beirut, Maya’s husband became increasingly frustrated with his inability to work and provide for his family, the pressures of displacement were mounting as well as his post traumatic stress disorder. He started beating Maya and the children, every day. Maya says he would use anything in front of him as a weapon; an ashtray, a plate, glasses, or even hot tea.

“After I arrived in Lebanon, my husband started changing. He became very violent against the children… My daughter needed stitches on her head, from the metal on a belt, I took her to hospital where she received about 5 stitches, my son was being hit with a metal cable rod.”

After one horrific beating, Maya took her children and ran to a neighbor’s house. She stayed the night and then in the morning went straight to UNHCR and the Makhzoumi Foundation, a UNHCR partner and Lebanese NGO.

The Makhzoumi Foundation immediately helped place her and the children in a temporary safe shelter so that her violent husband wouldn’t be able to get to them. The children received psychological counseling; she got help finding an apartment and got rent assistance for the first few months, her children enrolled in school. Maya even got legal assistance which enabled her to get a divorce.

“What happened to me is not something that’s forgettable. If I didn’t have the UNHCR and the Makhzoumi Foundation standing next to me, I would not have had the courage to take one step forward.”

Because of financial support from countries such as Sweden, UNHCR, Makhzoumi and other partners all joined together to give Maya a way out and empower her to become independent. Maya also enrolled in a vocational training program at Makhzoumi free of charge where she learned marketable skills such as a hairdresser and beautician.

Maya attends a support group where survivors and outreach volunteers get together in an informal setting. It’s a safe space for them to vent and to get sound advice, a place where they can speak freely of their experiences, challenges, and even trauma without judgment.


Sweden is one of UNHCR’s strongest and most important partners and donors. In 2016, Sweden was UNHCR’s third largest contributor per capita with a total contribution of SEK 1.2 billion (USD 136.8 million), including a record high SEK 815 million (USD 94.9 million) unearmarked core support. Sweden is UNHCR’s largest donor of unearmarked contributions, making Sweden particularly important to UNHCR since its flexible funding allows UNHCR to deliver uninterrupted and immediate assistance where it is most needed, including acute emergencies and critically underfunded crises.

Sweden has a strategic focus on gender and has stepped up efforts in combating sexual and gender based violence in conflict regions around the world, also by financially supporting UNHCR’s ‘Action against Sexual and Gender Based Violence Strategy.’

Sweden has a large donor focus on the Syria crisis and contributes with crucial funding to protect and empower Syrian refugees, including vulnerable groups, with a strategic focus on women’s and girls’ rights and specific support to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Sweden donated to UNHCR SEK 65 million (USD 7.6 million) for the Syria crisis in 2016.

Sweden protecting and empowering victims of SGBV

Sweden’s flexible financial support to UNHCR helps address the needs of women like Maya and girls who are victims of violence and abuse through strengthening identification mechanisms and supporting the institutionalization of effective prevention and response programming through public institutions, social workers, and civil society partners. The program also helps men and boys who are victims of SGBV. UNHCR works across Lebanon to ensure that safe, confidential services are available for refugee survivors of SGBV.  In Maya’s case, she was able to get medical help, legal aid and emergency cash assistance among other things because of these programs.​

Some of the UNHCR services provided include:

  • ​​​24/7 hotlines for children and women at risk, as well as SGBV survivors, on how to access services.
  • Temporary safe shelters open around the clock, to provide immediate protection services to survivors who need to be removed from an immediate dangerous situation.
  • Access to safe spaces such as Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs’ Social Development Centers, where survivors are provided with medical care, psychological counseling and legal assistance.
  • Cash assistance (such as for rental fees, transportation and food) and other forms of material protection which reduce the risk of exposure to SGBV.
  • Training of frontline staff on identification, counseling and referrals, and when appropriate on the clinical management of rape.
  • Training of law enforcement officials on how to safely identify and appropriately handle SGBV.
  • Where appropriate, resettlement for the most vulnerable amongst those with specific needs.

Complementing these tailored services, survivors like Maya are also supported to rebuild their confidence and self esteem to resume their lives through activities and skills trainings in these areas.​

Overall, refugees are empowered to identify and respond to their own protection needs, ensuring that the most vulnerable amongst them can tap into established safety nets provided by the community as well as from public institutions.

Lebanese aid workers express hope that with every success story like Maya’s, others will take note and have the courage to stand up against sexual and gender-based violence. They say that each success story can lead to a ripple effect when it comes to awareness and prevention.

UNHCR combating SGBV and protecting Syrian refugee survivors 

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) threatens displaced women and girls, as well as men and boys, in all regions of the world. SGBV can both be a cause of forced displacement and a terrible consequence of war and conflict resulting in a breakdown of family and community structures, abuse of power and gender discrimination, and inadequate access to basic needs. Refugees with specific needs are among the most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, girls and boys, older persons, LGBTI persons, and female heads-of-households. UNHCR is committed to ending all forms of SGBV by working to prevent and reduce the risks of violence and abuse and to ensure support is available for the victims by working alongside displaced communities and with different partners across multiple sectors.

There is an increased prevalence and risk of SGBV when conflicts arise such as the brutal war in Syria.  In Lebanon, more than one million Syrian refugees are scattered across the country, living in informal settlements or substandard buildings side-by-side with 1.5 million vulnerable Lebanese. Domestic violence, sexual violence, exploitation, and early marriage are the most commonly reported incidents among refugees, though due to fear of stigma and recrimination, many incidents go unreported. As the crisis extends, with more than 70 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon living below the poverty line, deepening socio-economic vulnerabilities exacerbate the risks of refugees being exposed to SGBV. Seven years into the Syrian crisis and Lebanon now has one of the highest per capita ratios in the world of persons registered as refugees– one in four people is a Syrian refugee and public institutions and infrastructure are extremely overstretched.

Beirut, Lebanon. By Nadine Alfa. Edited by Lisa van Hogerlinden.  *Names have been changed to protect identity.