Badges are hard to come by, and camping trips difficult to arrange – but despite the war in Syria, a growing girl scouts movement will soon get official recognition.
Six years of vicious conflict have devastated the country and left 45% of the population displaced. But throughout, girl scouts have continued to work in government-controlled areas, running camping trips as well as sessions on citizenship and self-esteem. This week, Scouts of Syria will become an official member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, while Arabic could become the organisation’s fourth official language – following English, French and Spanish.
“When we organise meetings at times it’s more difficult than at other times, but we’re getting through,” says Zain, 22, a scout leader, speaking from Damascus. “The main problem with finding safe areas is when we want to go camping there aren’t as many safe spaces.”
Many of the girls attending the meetings have been forced to leave their home towns, are unable to attend school and have lost friends and family members. “We as scouts have a responsibility towards them as in cheering them up, playing with them and helping them,” says Zain.
At first, some parents were reluctant to send their children on camping trips, but the numbers have doubled since last year, with 60 attending this summer. In Damascus, local meetings are held as often as three times a week, and badges are brought into the country by staff members after they have attended international events.
“One of the things that’s very important to girl scouts in Syria is how normalising it is, how important it is to have structured activity and to be able to connect to a global organisation, to be able to feel part of something,” says Nicola Grinstead, chair of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. The organisation’s world conference begins this week in New Delhi.
As well as playing games and singing, girls are taught about issues such as body confidence and preventing violence against women. Before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, women’s groups warned that rape and gender-based violence were a serious concern. Syrian law allows rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victim, and the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Last year, the UN said government forces and non-state armed groups have been committing systematic rape throughout the war.
Sessions on gender-based violence involve boy scouts as well as groups of girls, says Zain. “[We make sure] girls understand what their rights are, but it’s also very important boys understand this as well. We teach [boys] to respect women, care and defend them. We teach both genders to care for each other, and do their best to stop the violence when they see it happening.”
Scouts of Syria also works closely with the UN and Red Crescent to provide psycho-social support to traumatised young people. “Some of them have been displaced, they left where they lived and migrated to another city. Some others have experienced the difficulty of seeing someone shot or killed in front of them,” says Rim, commissioner and board member of Scouts of Syria, based in Damascus. Each year a camp is held for children of soldiers who have died, she adds. “It is the guides and scouts’ duty to look after their children and make special programmes for them each year.”
One of Scouts of Syria’s main aims, she says, is to teach girls about their roles as good citizens. “The focus is on citizenship rather than politics. The main objective is that since I am a Syrian citizen, I have to have a role in Syria – because the war is on Syrian people not between Syrian people.
“It’s about discussing with them their role in the country. Then they are motivated and they believe in the idea of staying.”
This week, Aruba, Azerbaijan and Palestine will also become full members of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and Albania and Niger will become associate members.
The Guardian –First names have been used to protect identities