Refugees in Jordan Combat Sexual Violence
Pushing Hard Against Cultural Norms
This is Rana Ersar, boldly confronting sexual violence in the burgeoning Muslim refugee communities of Amman. This is what Arab leadership looks like, rising from families, entire countries ravaged by war.
One of five and a half million Syrians who managed to escape the decade-long horror next door, Ersar landed here in Jordan’s capital, an ever-sprawling hot and dusty place where she shares four rooms with sixteen family members. Their neighborhood is filled with a bevy of other nationalities living the same way: Sudanese who survived massacres in Darfur, Somalis who fled al-Shabab’s terror, Iraqis who dodged death from the many wars on their soil. Syrians are the largest group by far. Countrywide, UNHCR says they number 670,000, though Jordan contends they’re double that, while aid groups and diplomats put their total near two million. After they scramble for safety, food and shelter, there is far more to fight for: healthcare, schools, jobs, family unification. The list goes on and it’s often blurred by the massive cloud of trauma that’s both deeply individual and community wide.
A common lament among Jordan’s social workers is ridiculous yet true: there is just one psychologist for every 50,000 people, including millions of refugees badly damaged by what drove them here. The ratio is obvious in daily life. The director of a decrepit public school in East Amman somehow manages the swell of refugees by serving double shifts for each school day (1,100 in the morning; 1,300 in the afternoon) and cramming 60 students into each classroom. She’s too short-staffed to prevent the “many children who grow up in poor, violent families” from disrupting, bullying, and fighting teachers and classmates alike. Hers is an all-girls school.
Worried about widely accepted gender-based violence that's handed down by one generation to the next eating into economic growth, the World Bank teamed up this year with Harvard and the Hashemite Kingdom to survey 1000 East Amman youth and to innovate solutions.
By all international indices Jordan is a poor country. An aid recipient before its first influx of Palestinians in 1947, it’s been one ever since. Bereft of natural resources, the Hashemite Kingdom has something highly valuable to donors: peace. Multibillion-dollar foreign assistance is critical to maintaining it. Average monthly salaries don’t exceed $1,000 and the government’s budget belt tightening leaves even its most loyal tribes financially strapped. Natives (and indeed, that category includes millions of Palestinian refugees granted citizenship over the years) feel tremendous strain from the masses of recent refugees whose needs far outsize and outpace the capacity of this economy to deliver the medical care, sanitation, and education that the sheer numbers demand.
This is not to say the Kingdom is an ungracious host. Though Jordan’s dependability as a major humanitarian center may go unnoticed in global media coverage, it’s well known to the explosive growth of asylum seekers drawn here. Long stable in a region of utter volatility, this nation houses the world’s second highest number of refugees, per capita. Jobs are tight and few of the forced migrants are allowed work permits, but some earn money as farmhands and in low-end services. Like immigrants everywhere, they’re blamed for pushing down wages and taking paychecks from locals. And they’re particularly vulnerable to abuse. NGOs and the US State Department are troubled by the escalation in Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian child labor. It’s easy for human traffickers to snatch these boys and girls. Females of all ages are at highest risk for indentured servitude, sex trafficking and most commonly, forced marriage.
Ersar, now 32, arrived from Damascus in 2016 after her husband abandoned her for a new life with a new woman in Austria. Afraid of losing refugee benefits, he refuses to give Ersar a divorce. Trapped, she heard about CARE, a global NGO particularly active with refugee women and girls in Jordan. It’s Women’s Leadership Council builds networks in neighborhoods to help others identify, expose and reduce gender-based violence. “I joined because we are a link between the community and the decision makers,” she says.
Ersar knows the everyday threat of sexual violence. Rape has been the most common weapon of the Syrian war since the beginning of the conflict. Jordan, like the rest of the region, is a male-dominated society wherein men often conflate aggression with masculinity when behind closed doors, especially in the domestic arena.
Building local capacity to respond to everyday challenges is the only way to change the equation. And CARE’s model taps talent from people who desperately need help themselves. Expected to reach 1000 other women as a leader confronting gender-based violence, Ersar says she’s becoming more confident, and more purposeful. “We didn’t lose everything in Syria. We actually gained something here.”
Seeking more specifics on CARE Jordan? Find their initiatives here. Are you in the field and interested? Every NGO in Jordan is looking for mental health professionals: MSWs, psychologists, therapists, trauma specialists and psychiatrists. For a look at the scope of gender-based violence, worldwide, see what experts advise on the latest data and trends. The World Health Organization calculates a staggering 30 percent of the world’s women have experienced sexual violence. The Gender Based Research Initiative is among the larger and better-funded groups with programs and findings around the globe. More reading on Jordan? Senior Jordanian statesman cum commentator Marwan Muasher offers crisp and critical perspectives on Jordan’s delicate role as a stabilizer in the Levant.