The photos of Syrian families fleeing war to the safety of refugee camps in Jordan are gut wrenching, but their distress is only worsened by family separation, physical danger, trauma, overcrowding, and lack of information about family, food, and relocation. And, being a refugee girl creates a “double endangerment” due to age and gender, according to Goleen Samari, a fellow with the international education non-profit Humanity in Action.
In Syria, this health vulnerability all too often often takes the form of rape, child marriage, and sex work by girls who then experience deep and lasting emotional distress. In fact, 2015 statistics show that girls under 18 make up 25% of all Syrian refugee marriages in Jordan. While parents say they arrange young marriages to prevent rape in camps, these marriages bring their own psychological consequences and risk for abuse of child wives. Additional risk factors include lack minimal access to education and menstrual products, adding to girls’ disempowerment, stress, and shame.
These circumstances all point to the interplay of mental health and sexual health, with extreme stressors that precipitate conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, according to the WHO’s Assessment of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Needs of Displaced Syrians in Jordan. Compounding the issue, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reveals limited training of aid workers to address prevention of these additional risks for women.
The WHO states that physical safety and meeting basic needs for food and supplies are at the core of protecting girls from psychological distress. By receiving access to the basics from aid organizations, girls and women will not need to turn to sex work to survive and may experience reduced stress and stigma that lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety.
Attending to girls’ emotional and educational support is also key, in terms of basic schooling and taking care of their mental and reproductive health. For example, the Another Kind of Girl Collective, WomenOne, and Save the Children International brought an innovative initiative to girls in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The program provided training and equipment for girls to create documentary films about their lives, so that they could “articulate the unspeakable,” support each other, and connect to the outside world. The films are viewable on the Another Kind of Girl website, receiving accolades from around the world.
“We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”
-Khaldiya, filmmaker living in the Za’atari camp, in an Op-Doc appearing in the New York Times
Storytelling in this form helps to reduce the more than 40% of refugees in the Za’atari camp who report no method for coping with their trauma and stress. Syria Bright Future, led by a psychiatrist who was himself a refugee, delivers therapy to refugee children and provides education in the Za’atari Camp, teaching adolescents about gendered violence and underage marriage in an effort to prevent these conditions. More aid workers must include trained professionals in trauma, depression, and mental health. These workers should be particularly using culturally sensitive screening tools while destigmatizing mental illness. This is critical to the success of attempts to help girls cope.
When it comes to the refugee crisis, we can all do something. There are some simple ways you can act to make a difference in the emotional health of girls in refugee settings:
- Sign a petition, or start your own, to protect girls from sexual violence, which you can do by signing this petition to the president of South Sudan or the International Medical Corps petition demanding access to basic medical and mental health needs for refugee families.
2. Donate to WomenOne’s filmmaking program for refugee girls in Jordan or its project to provide essential education and basic needs, such as food and school supplies.
3. Choose a organization involved in sustainable development that speaks to you, such as Circle of Health International or Mercy Corps. You can contribute supplies, volunteer any amount of time you have, or organize your own fundraiser to organize your community in making a larger contribution.
Featured Photo: Colombe Verges / Flickr.