An uphill battle for women in conflict

September 21, 2016
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Alexia Webster

On the heels of Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, we’re reminded of the harrowing stories of women in conflict, and the dire need to address the global refugee crisis.

It was gunshots that woke up Gomokian Corine while she slept in her house in Central African Republic’s capital city of Bangui. As screams pierced the air, she jumped out of bed, grabbed her two daughters and took off running.

Corine headed for the airport in search of safety as bullets flew around her. “I saw people being killed on the way,” she said.

It is women and girls who suffer the most during conflict; often their husbands are killed during fighting, leaving them with little to no economic support to take care of their families.

It was December 5, 2013, and clashes between Christian militias (known as the Anti-Balaka) and the primarily Muslim Séléka group erupted in the streets of Bangui. It was a day so horrific that it is referred to simply as “le cinq” or “the fifth” by the people living in the city.

Corine never saw her husband again. She found out days later that he had been killed in the fighting. Shortly after — while living at the M’Poko displacement camp at the airport — she discovered she was pregnant.

Gomokian Corine, 30, sits in her makeshift shelter in M’Poko displacement camp with her son, Grace-Dieu, eight months, and daughters Jennifer (left), eight, and Paula (right), six. Photo: Crystal Wells.

Gomokian Corine, 30, sits in her makeshift shelter in M’Poko displacement camp with her son, Grace-Dieu, eight months, and daughters Jennifer (left), eight, and Paula (right), six. Photo: Crystal Wells

Unfortunately, Corine’s story is not unique. According to UNHCR, of the 65.3 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world — half are women. It is women and girls who suffer the most during conflict; often their husbands are killed during fighting, leaving them with little to no economic support to take care of their families.

Struggling Alone

Nyalada Maluit fled violence in South Sudan’s northern Unity State after being shot three times in crossfire when war hit her rural village close to Bentiu.

She and her children escaped to Leer — 84 miles South — where she was able to seek treatment for her injuries. Less than a week later, as the wounds on her wrist, back, and leg were still healing, fighting sent her and family running once again — this time deep into the bush.

Nyalada Maluit holds her two-year-old son, Lat Machar, in front of their home in the displacement camp

Nyalada Maluit holds her two-year-old son, Lat Machar, in front of their home in the displacement camp on the UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan.

For six months, Nyalada and her children lived hiding in the bush, drinking water from streams and boiling water lilies for food. They finally were able to make their way to a United Nations base. “We came here seeking protection and food,” she said.

But for women like Nyalada, their troubles do not end once they leave their countries behind or reach the safety of camp. As refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs), they face isolation and hardship, in addition to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. They also have to look after and provide for their children, who are struggling from trauma themselves.

Reduced to rubble

Sehr is one of more than 400,000 women who fled from Syria to neighboring Lebanon. When she left Syria, she walked all night through the mountains to reach safety. “A bomb hit our house,” she explained. “The walls fell first and then the whole house fell. We lost everything. My daughter and I came here with the clothes we were wearing and 500 Syrian pounds” [less than $4].

She chose to name her daughter Amal, meaning “hope” in Arabic, “so she can hope for a better life than this.”

Living in a makeshift shelter with her five-year-old daughter — on a remote crevice of a hillside in Lebanon’s Akkar district — Sehr explained that she hadn’t spoken to her husband in a year, and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

She used to have a big house and financial stability, but had to adjust to earning a meager living doing housework. She chose to name her daughter, just a few months older than Syria’s civil war Amal, meaning “hope” in Arabic, “so she can hope for a better life than this.”

Sehr’s situation is not unusual. In countries experiencing conflict — and among refugee communities — female-headed households are very common. And because women often have difficulty getting well-paying work, and are typically excluded from community decision-making, their families are particularly vulnerable.

An older woman reflects to herself

“Iman” lost 19 members of her family in a bombing attack on their home in Syria. Photo: Kieran McConville

Women also face unique dangers in times of crisis. They are frequently at risk of gender-based violence, making everyday activities like going to the bathroom or collecting water potentially dangerous, due to the risk of rape or sexual abuse. According to the UN, the maternal mortality rate in conflict and post-conflict countries rises to 2.5 times higher than the average. Struggling and alone, women often turn to negative coping mechanisms, such as marrying their young daughters to much older men in hopes that it will ensure their daughter’s safety and financial security, and reduce the burden on the family.

What Concern is doing to help

These are just a few of the stories of the hundreds of thousands of women who have to bear the burden of conflict — usually alone.

Concern knows that because war affects women and children disproportionately, we have to focus on their needs. In countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees — such as Lebanon and Turkey — we provide refugee women with psycho-social support, address shelter needs, and build resources for communities to promote gender equality and reduce gender-based violence. In countries of conflict like South Sudan, we are distributing food and vouchers to families, treating malnourished children, building shelters, and providing clean water and latrines.

We remain committed to working with women —especially single parents — to provide them with skills training so that they’re able to work toward a better life for themselves and their families.

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