“An entire generation of children in Syria has known nothing but war - girls and young women bearing an even harder brunt of this terrible conflict”, underlined EU Ambassador Stevens in the beginning of the event. Andreas Papaconstantinou, Director for Middle East of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid Directorate (ECHO) said in his keynote speech: “10 years into the war the reality for girls & young women is dramatic and gender-based violence, child marriages and pregnancies are on the rise. The EU will continue to prioritize the protection of young women and girls in North West Syria”. He also highlighted the EU’s commitment to ‘Education in Emergencies’: “Access to quality and safe education for all children affected by the war is essential for contributing towards the future of Syria. Education is a powerful equality-builder and a great tool for peace building. The EU will continue to invest in Education in Emergencies and invest in the education of girls.”
In view of the particularly shocking figures regarding the impacts of the long-lasting conflict on the Syrian youth, including the fact that over 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school, two Syrian experts, Dr Maria al Abdeh and Dr Amani Ballour, shared their experiences from their humanitarian work on the ground.
While the Syria conflict has impacted all children in North West Syria, their experiences have been deeply gendered. While boys have been arrested, detained, and targeted for recruitment, girls and young women have been disproportionally affected by sexual violence, restrictions on their movements, removed from schools and faced obstacles in reaching healthcare. In times of widespread, and increasing hunger, girls, and particularly young mothers, have also been carrying the burden of education and nourishing the youngest, a challenge compounded by lack of access to resources and COVID-19 restrictions, at an age when they are still trying to put their lives together. The situation of girls and young women is particularly worrisome with an increase of out-of-school girls and increased trends of early marriage and pregnancies and other protection issues, including GBV.
Dr Maria al Abdeh, Director of the organisation “Women Now for Development”, presented an overview of the key challenges affecting girls and young women including child marriage, child labour, school dropouts and growing risks associated with displacement and COVID-19. Despite all burdens, she highlighted the great potential of Syrian girls and young women and pointed out the need to ensure safe spaces for them.
“Education can protect girls from early marriages, teenage pregnancy, and exploitation and it allows greater economic empowerment and work opportunities for women”, explained Dr Amani Ballour, the brave paediatrician and protagonist of the 2020 Oscar nominee the Cave, winner of the 2020 Council of Europe Raoul Wallenberg Prize of 2020 for her bravery in saving saving hundreds of lives during the Syrian war and and founder of the Al Amal (Hope) Fund. Focusing on Syrian led efforts to address the issue of girls and young women’s rights, Dr Ballour emphasized: “It is crucial to identify and support women leaders as agents of change and equip them to build solutions and help others in their communities. The Future of Syria is a Future that integrates and values women’s voices, rights and perspectives.”
Among the speakers were also Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Corinne Fleischer, Director for Syria – of the UN World Food Programme, Sonia Khush, Director for Syria - Save the Children as well as Melinda Young, UNICEF Senior Emergency Advisor for the Whole of Syria, who shared their experiences and expertise with regard to the special needs of girls and young women in conflict settings, especially in North West Syria.
Mr Egeland and Ms Young drew particular attention to the worrisome numbers of school dropouts due to increasing insecurity, while highlighting that girls are more deeply impacted by the crisis and therefore more likely to drop out of school. Referring to a survey led by UNICEF, Young pointed to the surge in child labour, advocating for a multisectoral approach including nutrition and education to address this issue, especially to ensure girl’s access to education.
Ms Fleischer put emphasis on the issue of food insecurity, as it affects over half of the Syrian population. In view of this crisis, she explained that education cannot be prioritized over food security, as families will always choose to meet the most pressing needs first. Also referring to the pressing issue of rising hunger, Ms. Khush illustrated that this crisis is particularly affecting girls and young women as they are likely to be taken out of school to get married. To tackle this issue, she pointed out that trainings and education programmes focusing on mothers could help decrease malnutrition.
All speakers agreed in appealing to the need to encourage these young women and girls despite their hardships: “We need to keep sending out messages of hope and give girls and young women in Syria a voice”.