Sunday 15th March marked nine years since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. In response to this tragic milestone, the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) has released a report highlighting the plight of women and girls who continue to bear the brunt of the escalating humanitarian crisis. The war has caused mass displacement and the destruction of civilian facilities, including schools and hospitals. The UNFPA estimates that 960,000 people have been displaced since December 2019 and that 80% of these are women and children. Syrian women and girls are facing an increase in gender-based violence, child marriages, and disruption to reproductive health services. In the past couple of weeks, the UNFPA has reported that two health centres and two mobile clinics, which serve around 6000 people per month, have ceased operations. According to a recent report by UNICEF, over half of all health facilities are non-functional, while two in five schools are not in use as they are destroyed, sheltering displaced families, or are being used for military purposes.
Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Natalia Kanem, released a statement to express the agency’s “deep concern” about the dire conditions that women and girls are facing in Syria. Dr Kanem states that “millions of women and girls continue to pay a high price for a conflict they had no role in creating”. The UNFPA and partners continue to help affected communities in Syria by providing safe spaces where women and girls can find services, youth centres, healthcare facilities, and mobile clinics. Over the past three years, UNFPA has reached 7.6 million Syrian people with life-saving health services and prevention and response to gender-based violence. In addition, UNICEF has worked with a wide variety of partners to provide education to nearly three million children, and to provide two million people with water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities.
While the UN and other organisations are continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, the overstretched health system and continued attacks on facilities in Syria are preventing the delivery of crucial services. The risk of gender-based violence remains acute, while midwives operating in Syria report that there has been an increase in early deliveries, miscarriages, and low-weight births. In December 2019, UNFPA was forced to close seven service delivery points, cutting off access to 13,000 people, due to the constrained humanitarian access. UNFPA estimates that there is a funding gap of $57 million for its programmes in Syria, and 13 million people require assistance across the country, including 3.4 million women and girls of reproductive age.
There is a renewed urgency to support the peace effort and find a UN-led solution to the violence. The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, has released a statement in response to the milestone reached last week, in which he calls for unity in the international community, insisting that “we must choose peace”. However, though we may remain hopeful that peace may be achieved, Luay Shabaneh, UNFPA’s Regional Director for the Arab States, rightly points out that “when the guns fall silent, it does not mean the suffering of women and girls stops”. Girls that have been forced to marry, women whose lives have been disrupted, and families whose homes have been destroyed, will endure further suffering if support services continue to be restricted and underfunded. The needs of women and girls must remain central to humanitarian response and development plans, in order to ensure sustainable peace and security for all Syrians.