The Syrian war had been raging for almost four years when Lene Natasha Lind arrived in Beirut on August 24, 2015, to begin her new job as Norway’s ambassador to Lebanon. This proved to be a tough role in a country struggling to support an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees.
Lebanon’s already tenuous infrastructure is buckling under the pressure of attempting to provide adequate sanitation, electricity and water to the large refugee population, she says. And efforts to represent Norway during the humanitarian crisis are complicated by culturally defined gender norms that affect the ability of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon to find work and provide for their families.
Women & Girls spoke with Lind about how Norway’s gender-balanced approach to diplomacy puts Syrian refugee women and girls at the forefront of her country’s mission in Lebanon.
Women & Girls: What needs to be done specifically for Syrian women and girls in Lebanon to ensure that they will have a successful and sustainable future?
Lene Natasha Lind: We know from UNHCR data that there are a lot of single female heads of households in the Syrian refugee population. For instance, they have either had their husbands killed or they remain in Syria fighting while the women have fled with their children. Because of this, it is very important to target intervention towards the heads of households. We can do this by providing more cash assistance which will allow the families to be able to cater for themselves.
It is also important to recognize that the job market is aimed towards men here. This is due to cultural and gender issues, but it is very difficult for women to go out and get work because of this, and also because they have to look after their children. Our biggest intervention in Lebanon is to ensure that [Syrian refugee] children have access to school and the support to do their learning. This is a big help to their mothers, who are keen to see their children receive an education.
Women & Girls: Forty percent of Norway’s budget in Lebanon goes toward increasing access to education in the country, and many Syrian refugee children have been out of school for years due to the conflict. What are you doing to increase access to education for Syrian girls in Lebanon?
Lind: Parents are hesitant to allow their girls to go to school over safety concerns, so we focus on providing girls with safe transport to school and making sure they have a safe school environment. We do this through close cooperation with UNICEF and the ministry of education.
We set targets to get as many children in school at the start of every school year, and we see that these targets aren’t enough because … if the family does not have any income and their status here in Lebanon is illegal, then they tend to send out the girls – or anyone they can – to beg for money.
Women & Girls: Are there initiatives that you support that allow Syrian women to enter the job market?
Lind: The job market is a difficult one because Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in Lebanon. So, we can’t promote that on a large scale until we have an agreement with the government that they will allow refugees to work, and we are doing a lot of advocacy on that.
We are looking to target projects right now that can be sustainable because when our [cash] support ends, they need to be able to maintain [the projects]. Right now, there are a lot of projects that are good projects in the short run, like knitting and embroidery, but these aren’t sustainable because things like embroidery or knitting aren’t needed on a continuous basis.
Women & Girls: You have partnered with ABAAD to help survivors of domestic violence. Why is this program important?
Lind: We are supporting centers for women who are direct victims of violence. These are women who have just fled Syria or Syrian women who have fled from violence while in Lebanon and whose situations make them unable to return to their families, so they have nowhere else to go.
We are specifically involved in the women’s crisis center where ABAAD supports the women until they can support themselves, such as providing legal advice, information about gender bias in Lebanon and providing sexual health information.
They work with women and girls who have fallen out of acceptable levels of society, including women who are victims of incest and underage pregnant girls. These girls can be under threat because things like honor killings are still prevalent in certain segments of Syrian and Lebanese society.
Women & Girls: What do you think it is specifically about the Syrian crisis that has contributed to a rise in domestic violence?
Lind: It is a tremendous stress […] to not be able to work. You lose your honor and you risk your respect. Quite often for a man in this part of the world, this is an impossible situation, and unfortunately they quite often turn violent. When there is this level of desperation, there is a violent reaction pattern.
Women & Girls: Did you have any misgivings about taking on this ambassadorship at such a challenging time?
Lind: No I didn’t. I actively sought this posting because it appeared meaningful and important to me. My foreign minister has also made a point of appointing more women to ambassadorships in countries affected by conflict or other severe vulnerabilities. This is one of several measures we have taken to implement Security Council Resolution 1325. This year, we also appointed our first female ambassador to Afghanistan for the same reasons. I am well aware of the challenges and I am grateful for the opportunity to do my part.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.