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What do gender inequalities mean to adolescents living in Jordan and Lebanon?

Flipchart used to capture adolescents' reflections on inequalities @ GAGE

Insights from GAGE qualitative researchers

The theme of World Refugee Day 2022 is ‘the right to seek safety’: it recognises that every person has the right to safety whoever they are, wherever they come from and whenever they flee. Women and girls who are displaced face myriad risks to their safety, with adolescent girls facing specific challenges linked to their social position. The economic and physical insecurity endured by refugee communities often exacerbates existing restrictive gender norms, amplifying risks such as child marriage, sexual and gender-based violence and harassment.

This is the second of two blogs which reflect on adolescents’ experiences of inequality in Lebanon and Jordan in the context of protracted displacement. Jordan is home to 2 million Palestinian nationals and after Lebanon, where Syrian refugees account for a quarter of the population, has the second largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the . The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranks Jordan and Lebanon 131st and 132nd respectively out of 156 countries when it comes to gender equality in economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.

In this piece, Sally Youssef and Sarah Alheiwidi reflect on how vignette-based participatory research with adolescents and youth (aged 15-22) in Jordan and Lebanon from both populations allowed insights into gender inequality within refugee and host communities, and the ways that these intersect with socioeconomic inequality. 

Kate: What were the strengths of using vignettes for exploring inequality with young people, in contrast to traditional interviews? Can you describe some of the insights this approach enabled into young people’s perceptions of gender inequality? 

Sally: The vignettes could be easily connected by adolescents to their personal experiences, meaning they were much quicker to share their thoughts. They seemed more comfortable talking and reflecting and sharing when they could take a step back and give an external viewpoint first. Sometimes adolescents self-censor, but when they feel safe to share their opinions without criticism or judgment they are more at ease and more candid in their reflections.

Sarah: When discussing difficult topics, the vignettes helped adolescents share their own opinions directly and with total freedom; discussing a third party made it easy to discuss complex issues. We always found that the opinions they shared were related to either themselves or someone they knew.

Sally: Girls in Lebanon saw harassment as more of a problem than boys, who didn’t see it as something that could impede their lives. Girls also talked more about violence, for example within the household, as something that affects their lives, but boys had more of a sense of agency over their futures and opportunities for a way out of such situations, so again didn’t see it as such a big issue. Early marriage was also something girls were more conscious about, and spoke of the impact on girls’ lives and futures; they saw that early marriage has increased amongst Syrian refugees and is now even becoming more common amongst Palestinian refugees.

Sarah: We also found in Jordan that gender differences in perceptions of inequality were connected to nationality and other differences. Compared to their male peers, for example, Jordanian girls with disabilities experienced the world very differently; they were cut off totally from the world beyond their home and had much lower aspirations due to the limitations imposed upon them. Syrian refugee girls said they were not permitted to work at all; whereas for boys, not working meant you were not an active member of the family. Syrian girls also had less freedom than boys and were blamed for harassment if they were out in public – yet girls highlighted they could not stand up for themselves, as they would be in trouble for doing so. Palestinian girls said that whilst they were encouraged to study, constraints on their mobility meant they are unable to pursue their studies if it would take them away from home, whereas boys were allowed to go anywhere to do what they want, but not encouraged to continue education in the same way.

Sally: In Lebanon, girls also felt they were blamed for everything they faced, and feared harming their reputation. Boys blamed girls for not immediately reporting harassment – but girls were worried that reporting would lead to repercussions from their families.

Sarah: Yes, girls in Jordan felt strongly that harassment was a major issue that required better solutions, whilst boys felt it was just a normal part of life.

Sally: In Lebanon catcalling is definitely seen as a normal part of life, and not something that could be changed – although other types of violence are seen as more of an issue. A lot of boys believed that catcalling and harassment is the fault of girls; that it’s a result of the way they dress or where they go, a view that even some girls shared, though most agreed on it being harmful. Interestingly, because Syrian girls have such limited mobility, they mostly did not talk about it as much as Palestinian and Lebanese girls in terms of personal experiences – they spoke more about constraints on their movement outside the house due to their or their families’ worries about harassment. The exception was girls in informal tented settlements, who faced harassment from local men whilst working.

Kate: Some of the vignettes were on challenging topics including child marriage, disability, gender, and violence. Which topics were the most difficult to discuss? 

Sarah: The most difficult topic in Jordan was violence within the family, including against women. There is still a widely held perception that it should be kept a secret, even if it is physical or severe, because it would harm the perpetrating family or community member to have to face court or go to jail. Violence against children by parents is also normalised. Child marriage was also a difficult topic to get adolescents to engage with. Girls framed child marriage as a family matter, and diverted conversations to the topic of harassment.

Sally: On child marriage, Syrian boys just tried to give us the answers that they thought we wanted. ‘It’s not good, girls should study etc’ – yet we know in practice that even some of our participants had married younger girls!

Sarah: Same in Jordan. There were arguments within a group of Syrian boys about the idea of early marriage. The main problem they identified was the lack of support and attitudes to girls who were married, and how this affects their ability to resolve problems within their marriage, rather than early marriage itself being a problem.

Kate: In each country, what do you think influences young people’s perceptions of inequality?

Sally: Lebanon is a much less conservative society than Syria, and this is affecting how Syrian adolescents think about and see things as they grow up. Some Syrian girls especially felt that living in Lebanon, and Lebanese men and Syrian men spending time together working and socialising, is shifting norms about violence against women – as it is less tolerated in Lebanon compared to Syria.

Sarah: The view that violence against women was decreasing was also expressed by girls in Jordan, but the reasons given were less about integration, and more about laws supporting women in Jordan.

Kate: What were young people’s solutions to addressing the causes of gender inequality in their country?

Sarah: On the issue of harassment, it was felt that the families of girls should be educated about it not being girls’ fault. Educating boys directly was seen as a dead end, because harassment was so normalised that it wasn’t seen to be an issue of their bad behaviour. On child marriage, the age of marriage was seen as needing to decrease but adolescents felt this change would be slow. Again, solutions offered were more about addressing family dynamics, customs and traditions.

Sally: On child marriage, a common solution identified by both refugee and Lebanese girls was changing Lebanese law and making 18 years the minimum legal age of marriage. Parents or religious leaders who marry off girls younger than 18, especially who do so through informal religious marriage contracts, could then be prosecuted. Syrian girls felt that awareness-raising campaigns by organisations were ineffective because their community would simply not listen, or refuse to participate. Syrian girls were particularly resigned to the practice continuing, whilst Lebanese and Palestinian girls had more faith in the law being able to address it.

Harassment was perceived to be a problem caused by a lack of education among boys and lack of security in Lebanon. Increasing the presence of Lebanese armed forces on streets and public spaces was perceived by adolescent girls as a deterrent to harassment. Educating girls and boys in schools and through programs that target gender-based violence issues in the local originations and include both boys and girls were also mentioned frequently as tools to educate especially boys on harassment and violence in general. Refugee girls in particular mentioned the need to have more women’s rights organisation that provide support and protection for girls who are victims of violence.