Sexual health education offers Syrian women the chance of a better life

By Laura Pitel

Female Syrian refugees take part in a workshop on sexual health, held in the living room of a volunteer, where many attendees said that they had never received any formal education about reproductive health, sex and childbirth. The workshop takes place at the home of a friend of Ahlam al-Milaji whose charity Zenobia was set up to educate and empower refugee women living in Gaziantep, Southern Turkey. Photograph by Mary Turner on 21 May 2017. Laura Pitel 14 hours Wednesday December 27th 2017

Sitting cross-legged around the edge of the bright and airy living room in an old Turkish stone house, the group of assembled women is transfixed. Ghazwa al-Milaji is making elaborate hand gestures. “You have two ovaries,” she says, twiddling her two hands mid-air. “And two fallopian tubes,” she adds, drawing arcs. Then she cups her palms together to depict a womb. The women sitting around her whisper to each other and nod.

They have come to a small, informal gathering organised by Zenobia, a tiny charity based in Gaziantep, a Turkish city of 2 million that is now home to 320,000 refugees. The organisation was founded two years ago by al-Milaji’s sister, Ahlam. Her aim is to empower women across the social spectrum by teaching them everything from female reproductive and health to constitutional politics.

Almost seven years on from the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, 5.3 million Syrians are in exile. More than 3 million of them are in Turkey. While most of Turkey’s refugee families have a roof over their head and some basic food to eat, life is tough. Women, in particular, often suffer from isolation, having been separated from family and friends and cut off from Turkish society by a language barrier.

One of the goals of Zenobia’s living-room coffee meetings, held in the homes of volunteers, is to get women out of the house. Participants can come alone or with their children to chat, make friends and to discuss contraception, healthcare and their rights and responsibilities under Turkish law.

Each of today’s 16 attendees are from one of the 75 struggling refugee families that the charity supports with monthly donations of food and cash. Most are illiterate and have never received any kind of instruction about sex and contraception, or even periods and childbirth.

The tone is raucous and often funny. When Ahlam asks her sister the best way to prevent pregnancy, she quips back: “Don’t get married!” Then comes a serious explanation.

There are also moments of sadness. During a discussion of the damage of underage marriage, an older woman breaks down in tears as she reveals the impending wedding of her 16-year-old daughter. “Oh no!” shouts Ahlam. She offers a stern warning about the risk of prosecution, but it doesn’t seem to sink in.

After the session, Ahlam admits her frustrations that she keeps encountering these problems even among families receiving support. “Sometimes I feel like we are making no progress,” she says. But deeply patriarchal structures are internalised by men as well as women, and can take years to break down. “It is bad cultural baggage,” she says. “We have to change it.”

When she arrives back at Zenobia’s modest office on the other side of the city, the main room is a flurry of bright coloured paper and scribbling pens. Groups of Syrian women and men of mixed ages are brain storming ideas for a future constitution, based on democratic principles and equal rights for all. They are being led by Somaya Sheikh Hasan and Mona al-Frij, an energetic pair of civil society activists. They shout “Yeah!” and “That’s right!” as the participants share their ideas.

This is a workshop for what Ahlam calls “the top of the pyramid,” the other end of the charity’s plan to improve the lives of women at all levels of society. She rejects the idea that planning a new constitution is hopelessly optimistic when President Bashar al-Assad seems to be going nowhere. “I am always being asked this question,” she says. “I always respond that all women — not only Syrian women — are always fighting a revolution to defend their rights. And now the Syrian women are fighting two revolutions: against the regime and also against gender injustice.”

Zenobia is run on a shoestring. Ahlam, an engineer by training, first worked as a dishwasher and then sold off her gold to get it up and running. Their income comes from donations strong-armed out of local Syrian businessmen.

Her strength and determination comes from her own story as a survivor. She was married at 19, gave birth to four children, and then endured breast cancer, divorce, war, and exile. “I know how women feel and know their suffering,” she says. “But I refuse to be weak.”

She chose the name Zenobia after a 3rd century Syrian empress, because, she says, every woman has an inner queen inside her wanting to get out. “I really believe in the power of women,” she says. “When the woman is strong, the whole family will be strong, too.”

Laura Pitel and Mary Turner reported from Gaziantep on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP)