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Violence is a major problem adolescent refugee girls face, but is it the core problem?

Aynaa. Photo: Palestinian adolescent girls

This blog is by a 16-year-old Palestinian refugee girl from Ein el-Hilweh, the largest and most crowded Palestinian camp in Lebanon. Despite many challenges, Aynaa is motivated to continue her education and she is currently enrolled in secondary school. She has participated in advocacy activities focusing on education and child labour; violence; psychological wellbeing, including the increasing rate of suicide among young girls; and combatting drug use.

Most recently, she was part of an advocacy campaign that drafted and sent a letter on behalf of youth in Lebanon to the Minister of Education, calling for measures to tackle school drop outs and child labour which she sees as affecting many young people around her. Aynaa joined the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) participatory research group in Lebanon in 2019, She is a member of our ongoing covid-19 research.

This blog is one of two written by adolescent girls who are part of our participatory research and who are representing their peers at a virtual event during the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly entitled ‘Adolescent girls’ vision for accountability in Generation Equality‘.

During the event, Aynaa plans to address her recommendations to the Generation Equality Action Coalition leaders to look into economic injustice as the root cause of adolescent refugee problems.

Aynaa’s story as told to Sally Youssef, GAGE Lebanon Research Coordinator

Gender-based violence, including child marriage, is widespread in our community. Recently, these problems have increased with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated economic and social problems including unemployment, poverty and school drop-outs. The causes of violence that girls and boys face in our community are interconnected and interrelated. Verbal and physical violence is common in families, including marital violence and violence against children. Especially against girls, who are subjected to strict societal restrictions regarding their way of dressing, movement outside the house and interaction with males. In order to preserve girls’ reputations in society and their family’s honour, girls are often subjected to violence that seeks to control them. Child marriage exposes girls to more violence at the hands of their husbands, especially if they do not have sufficient awareness to stand up to marital violence or do not enjoy the protection of parents and society.

Child marriage is common among girls in Palestinian refugee camps. Financial hardship pushes parents to marry off their daughters in order to reduce financial burdens on the family. Palestinian refugees suffer from difficult economic conditions, especially in the camps. They are treated as foreigners and do not enjoy the right to work and own property in Lebanon. They are prevented from practicing all syndicated professions, which results in a high rate of unemployment, especially among youth.

On the other hand, the lack of decent job opportunities for young people contributes to school dropouts, especially at the secondary level. Palestinian adolescents see no benefit from obtaining an education if it does not provide them with better opportunities in the future. Which is especially true for girls who drop out of school at a higher rate at secondary level. The reasons for that are either related to early marriage or girls’ beliefs that there is no point in learning. Their pessimism stems from  the customs and traditions in our community, whereby girls are not allowed to work because it is not acceptable for them to go out and stay outside their homes for a long period in gender-mixed places. Which, in turn, reinforces the idea that marriage is an aspiration that girls should strive for and aspire to from an early age, even at the expense of their studies.

The customs that consider girls’ futures to be limited to marriage are negative social traditions that have been continuing over generations. Although poverty and child marriage contribute directly to depriving girls of education, violence in schools also contributes to school dropouts. One of the biggest problems  for Palestinian children is the spread of violence against girls and boys in schools, which leads students to drop out. There is aslo a lack of oversight over the teachers, and mechanisms for complaints or protection. Additionally, there are no communication mechanisms between parents and schools. The spread of violence and school dropouts are usually linked to each other, and the roots of these problems stem from the marginalisation and poverty that Palestinians suffer.

I witnessed many cases of violence and friends dropping out of school, marrying and giving birth at a young age, which has always made me angry. Now these problems are increasing due to growing  poverty and unemployment following coronavirus and the economic crisis. Although girls’ work is forbidden in our community, poverty is now pushing many families to ask their daughters to work to help them with expenses. Because I believe that education is the right of every child and that it can protect adolescents from many problems such as violence, early marriage and child labor, I recently participated in an advocacy campaign to defend the right of children and adolescents to education, and the need to combat school dropouts and child labor. As part of this campaign, we drafted and sent a letter to the Minister of Education discussing the reasons behind school dropouts in our society and proposed mechanisms to combat it. We asked him to act immediately. But this is not enough, as poverty, the lack of refugee rights and opportunities for them is still ongoing, which are the main reasons behind the problems we suffer as a refugee community. As such, it is important to address the problem of economic injustice, especially for refugee girls.