When I visited Za’atari camp, where Syrian refugees have fled by the thousands, I spoke to a woman named Hanan. She said the biggest problem in the camp is the toilets.They are far away from the tents and very dark at night. No woman or girl goes there after nightfall. And in the daytime, the women go in groups for safety. There is no way to lock the door, and they don’t feel safe.
One part of camp has lighting, but it’s only a small part, and the electricity is intermittent. “We need light,” the women told us. “It is too dangerous for us here in the dark.”
The camp is so big that some women have to walk an hour and 15 minutes to reach the area of the camp where there are services — clinics, feeding centers and schools. But services can’t keep pace with the exploding population, so people don’t have access to care or basic supplies.
We talked to Rima who is helping to distribute basic needs like diapers in the camp. She told us how the women help each other, even just by talking together. “This fills a huge need that we have — to share our pain and our strength,” she said. “That’s the support that women give each other here. We have no money, clothes or food to give, but we can give our ear to listen and our shoulder to cry on. I never cry when my children are watching. They have seen enough tears.”
We also talked with some NGO workers who told us that sanitation is a big concern. Because the toilets are so far, many families dig holes by their tents as toilets. In the winter, torrential rain spreads the contents of these toilet pits throughout the camp. Water is easily contaminated. And now that it’s dry, the dust that’s everywhere in the camp carries fecal particles that are also a health hazard, causing respiratory illnesses and other diseases.
Menstrual health and hygiene are also a challenge. Women don’t have access to sanitary napkins and have no appropriate places to change or dispose of their pads.
We did see one happy sight: a group of girls playing soccer and laughing together. “In Syria, we would never have this chance,” they told us. “Girls don’t play soccer at home. Everyone knows it is terrible here, but this is our one good thing.”
Somehow, these women and girls find opportunity in crisis.