The story of Shamima Begum has divided public opinion. Many feel she’s let her country down with her apparent lack of remorse, forfeiting her right to the protection of the UK government.
Others feel more sympathetic. They see a vulnerable young woman – girl, really – who was lured away from the safety of her family home by cunning predators.
They see a person who’s spent what should have been her formative years in hellish conditions, brainwashed perhaps beyond repair, while miles away from the protection of her family.
Perhaps most of all, they see a painfully young mother, who’s suffered the unbearable loss of two children, before giving birth to her third child in the grim conditions of the al-Hawl camp, north of Syria.
Shamima’s story is undoubtedly headline-worthy. At just 19-years-old, she’s been stripped of her British citizenship, with her uneasy statelessness symbolic of the nightmarish destruction of Isis.
An apparently once ordinary Bethnal Green schoolgirl whose mind was warped by the evils of extremism, she is at once a source of fascination and fear, a classroom warning, and a media bogeyman.
While still hoping for a chance to get back to the UK, Begum made the following comments during a now notorious interview with Sky News:
I think a lot of people should have, like, sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left and I just was hoping that for the sake of me and my child, they could let me come back.
Because I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.
During this interview, Begum expressed fears her only living child would die in the camp, and admitted it was difficult to care for him there without any money to call her own.
The latest news from The Sun, which states Begum has fled to another camp, further highlights her fragile existence. She’s reportedly received death threats after speaking with the media, leaving her fearing for the safety of herself and her newborn son.
Like with many global tragedies, it’s often simpler – and more tabloid friendly – to zoom in on one individual, to pore over their interview transcripts and weigh up whether they are deserving of being saved, from the comfort of family dinner table debates.
But there are other mothers who are also suffering, living in unsanitary and dangerous conditions while fighting every moment to keep their children safe. And their voices are not being given the same prominence.
The impact of the Syria crisis on women and girls and a call for stronger measures geared toward their empowerment in refugee and host communities was the highlight of a joint event held by the @EUinJordan, @UNWomenJordan and @UNFPAJordan pic.twitter.com/mDZ8k8Hqkm
— EU in Jordan 🇪🇺🇯🇴 (@EUinJordan) February 28, 2019
A 2018 report from UNICEF found women and children made up the majority of those who’ve been displaced since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
According to an article in The New Arab, women greatly outnumber men in the Syrian population, with more than 70 per cent of refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries being women and children. Many male relatives of refugee women have been killed, detained, or are still fighting in war-torn Syria.
Often arriving at camps without possessions – and sometimes even without shoes – women birthing and caring for children at refugee camps in Syria and neighbouring countries face extreme difficulties.
Follow the stories of 5 women from #Yemen , #Syria , #Iraq , #Zaatari refugee camp in #Jordan, and #Gaza at #AWomanEvenHere and join us in calling for prioritizing women’s needs in humanitarian crises. Read more: https://t.co/kTLBU0HZyA pic.twitter.com/O6BXmgvJyW
— UNFPA Jordan (@UNFPAJordan) February 23, 2019
The threat of gender-based and sexual violence looms large for refugee women, who also face problems when accessing adequate maternal care and reproductive health services. Even simple feminine hygiene products such as sanitary pads can be tricky to come by.
Many displaced women face the prospect of pregnancy and even labor while on the move, cut off from the medical support often taken for granted in stable environments. According to the United Nations Population Fund Arab States (UNFPA), over 500 women in humanitarian and fragile settings die each day due to pregnancy and childbirth.
Shocking information on the UNFPA website states, ‘Without adequate support, pregnancy and childbirth can become just as life-threatening for women as shells and bullets’.
A day in the life of a 17 year old Syrian refugee pic.twitter.com/5rX4HKBQY7
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) March 3, 2019
UNILAD spoke with Steven Smith MBE, Chief Executive Officer at the International Refugee Trust (IRT) about what the IRT is doing to help support the health and well-being of refugee women:
In Jordan, IRT supports two hospitals, known as the ‘Italian Hospitals’ because they were founded by an Italian priest 90 years ago. One is in the capital, Amman, and the other in a town called Karak.
The hospitals were established to help the poor and refugees. Jordan is really bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Although official figures have some 650,000 refugees registered, the true figure is closer to 1.4 million – over 13 per cent of the population of Jordan.
Jordan has welcomed these refugees with open arms, but the influx has put a huge strain on public resources – not least medical resources.
Episode 4 of Radio Hakaya, a podcast series about the socio-political climate faced by Syrians and their host communities through their own eyes as the pressure rises for refugees to return to Syria. https://t.co/prHj2N1RgG
— Hicham Yezza (@HichamYezza) February 28, 2019
Mr Smith continued:
There is no national health service in Jordan – if you can’t pay, there is no treatment – this includes mothers in labour! Refugees have great difficulty in securing work, as the government restricts the number of work permits that are issued.
Therefore, paying for medical treatment is often impossible. The Italian Hospitals provide two beacons of light. They will provide free/heavily subsidised treatment for refugees. Refugees are, of course, highly likely to suffer medical conditions, given the stress of their situation and their generally poor living conditions.
Mr Smith gave UNILAD a typical example of a refugee woman seeking emergency treatment at an ‘Italian Hospital:’
25-year-old Sabah was suffering with excruciating abdominal pain and bleeding. She could not afford the treatment at the local government-run hospital near her refugee camp.
In pain, and in desperate need of medical attention, she traveled to the Italian Hospital in Amman, where she could receive free treatment. She was operated on for severe bleeding in her uterus.
The doctors were able to save her life by performing an emergency hysterectomy. She was then looked after at the hospital for free until she made a full recovery.
NEW! #AmberHeard joined SAMS Women's Health Mission to #Lebanon, meeting #Syria'n refugee women & underserved communities with limited access to services ❤️ #actress #activist #standup4humanrights #standup4womenrights pic.twitter.com/CPgENQtp0g
— Amber Heard Italia (@AmberHeardIT) February 22, 2019
For many Syrian mothers in refugee camps who are unaccompanied by a husband, they are forced to take up a more complicated role than they would have had prior to being displaced; becoming both father and mother.
According to a report from The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), many internally or externally displaced Syrian women will have to take up the role of breadwinner and head of their household.
However, many will find barriers in the way on earning an income when looking for life beyond the camps. According to findings from the UNHCR, a survey of 15,000 Syrian refugee female-headed households found women had less access to work opportunities than men, due partly to work restrictions in host countries.
✅ Creating Syria’s first women’s soccer club
✅ Founding a library in a refugee camp in Turkey
✅ Building a hub for start-ups in Damascus
The scholars I met today from International Students Overcoming War @Laurier represent the future of peace.
They’re an inspiration. pic.twitter.com/nsPQ4QJwiD
— Matt DeCourcey (@MattDeCourcey) February 21, 2019
Whatever you may think of her past actions, Begum’s story can shed some light on the ongoing ordeal of mothers in refugee camps, trapped between their past lives and the brighter futures they dream of for their children.
Often showing remarkable resilience and resourcefulness, many displaced women strive each day to hold their families together amidst dire circumstances; struggling beneath the traumas and responsibilities life has dealt them.
Save the Children’s Director of Conflict and Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy, George Graham, told UNILAD:
All too often vulnerable mothers across the world are forced to give birth and bring up young children in desperate situations, in the shadow of unspeakable violence and while trying to recover from incredibly traumatic experiences.
Motherhood is already one of the most dangerous journeys many women will make ever make – around 300,000 women die each year due to complications with their pregnancy.
In harsh and grimy camps in the midst of conflict or disaster, the threats to both mothers and children multiply. Our research has found that more than half a million babies may have died as a result of conflict in just ten countries over the past five years.
In the 6 minutes you’ll take to watch the video, 2 women will have died in pregnancy or childbirth in humanitarian settings. Full video: https://t.co/KbNypQ1a8O. Stay tuned at #AWomanEvenHere for their stories & join us in calling for prioritizing women’s needs, even here! @UNFPA pic.twitter.com/lmAvQPbnss
— UNFPA Jordan (@UNFPAJordan) February 21, 2019
Mr Graham added:
Squalid conditions mean diseases like cholera can spread like wildfire, killing within hours. The lack of healthcare and medicines can turn pre-existing conditions deadly. The stress and turmoil can mean mums need extra help to breastfeed and keep their babies healthy. And the risk of rape and harassment increases in the chaos.
But we see every day the strength of mothers doing the best for their children against all the odds.
Save the Children is in the world’s toughest places to be a mum, providing everything from support with breastfeeding to food and maternal healthcare.
But the UK can help bring down the number of mothers stranded and struggling in camps by using its influence to protect children in warzones.
Begum’s story is indeed newsworthy, but let us also look to other desperate mothers currently suffering in camps such as al-Hawl, whose names and faces will never grace the front page of a red top newspaper.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.