As the founder of the Lebanese education and social development nongovernmental organization Sawa Association for Development, Nawal Mdallaly works with female Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She described the situation refugee girls are facing now in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Al-Fanar Media: Can you describe the situation for refugee girls in Lebanon since the pandemic began?
Mdallaly: Before Covid-19 and the Beirut blast (in August), 25 percent of Lebanese households and 75 percent of the refugees were under the poverty line. Now … the situation is very fragile.
In the camps, Covid-19 mainly affected the girls because the education programs (for them) were closed on March 15. Speaking mainly about refugees, the big problem is child marriage, much more so than with the Lebanese. Still, it’s a big problem for all these children to continue their education—63 percent of them (are out of) school.
Some NGOs have continued their work via online education, but this has many issues: First, not all parents and children have cellphones. … The second obstacle is that there is no money … to charge their cellphones and pay for wi-fi. Third, it’s not easy for a child to remain for two or three hours on the phone—they need electricity.
Then, in the camps, the families prefer that the boys continue their studies. The girls are not a priority for the families.
Al-Fanar Media: Why is there a preference for boys?
Mdallaly: When they have a girl, they say it’s bad luck. They prefer boys because they say that a girl’s life is not easy … They don’t like to provide education for girls. … That’s why the number of boys is greater than the number of girls in the schools, especially in the refugee camps. Also, if a girl is not married, they will send her to the fields to work. It’s all so obvious in all the refugee camps in Bekaa.
It’s usually the mother and the girls, the children, who work. The father mainly stays in the tent. It’s a tradition (brought) from Syria … because most of them are Bedouins. So the men don’t work. … You can see in Bekaa Valley that the fields are all planted by girls. …. You can see them working in the fields, overseen sometimes by their brother, who is acting like a manager. …You won’t see boys gathering potatoes or vegetables— it’s always girls.
Syrian refugee families, they profit from their children: They don’t care about their safety or their education because there is poverty. So the priority will be to provide food—for that they force the girls to work or to get married at an early age.
For them, it’s not a problem if the girl gets married at 12 because she will be helping them: They will be eliminating a member of the family—they won’t have to pay for her anymore. ‘Let her be married then we don’t have to pay for her, the husband can take care of her,’ they think. They see girls like a sink (where the money just flows down and disappears).