WOMEN, WORK & WAR: Syrian women and the struggle to survive five years of conflict

Five years of war and displacement have triggered fundamental shifts in gender roles and responsibilities, both in Syria and in neighboring countries. In Syria before the crisis, women’s economic participation was relatively low at 22 percent in 2010,1 with some legal barriers but mainly sociocultural norms and practice limiting women’s roles and responsibilities inside and outside the house. As a result of the upheaval, however, Syrian women and men feel that their roles and responsibilities have been reversed: while women increasingly participate in decision-making on income and expenses and assume responsibilities outside the home, men have lost their traditional role as (sole) breadwinner and decision-maker.

Across the region, Syrian women have taken on new roles and responsibilities related to livelihoods. In Syria, where public services have been drastically cut, women have been forced to take up the slack in their families and communities, and are adopting a leading role in the informal humanitarian community. Remarkably, 12-17% of households in Syria2 and up to one-third of households in refugee-hosting countries3 are now female-headed. In other households, men are wanted (in Syria) or lack residency or work permits (in neighboring countries), and thus limit their movement outside the house, or they suffer from an acute injury or have acquired a disability (up to 25% of Syrians now live with or have4 ), and thus lost their previous livelihoods. In these circumstances, women increasingly assume responsibility for generating an income and ensuring that the family’s basic needs are met, while they continue to care for children, and other persons in need of special care. In refugee contexts, women and children are less likely than men to be asked for proof of residency or work permits, and thus sometimes find it easier to move and find work. Nevertheless, CARE data shows that employment opportunities in Syria are scarce, in particular for women, and the income of female-headed households tends to be below that of male-headed households.5

Syrian women both in Syria and in refugee contexts encounter substantial barriers as they try to establish new livelihoods. In particular, they have difficulty finding “suitable” livelihood options that are safe from physical violence like shelling, aerial bombing, and do not expose them to (sexual) harassment, put at risk the “honor” of the woman or her husband, are compatible with childcare and other household and care responsibilities, and, preferably, in sectors considered “feminine.” Some women also lack the vision, skills and self-confidence required to explore new livelihoods, and feel overwhelmed and exhausted. In rural areas, women have limited to no assets and income, little involvement in marketing products and decision-making over household expenses, and hardly any access to credit and extension services. In refugee hosting countries, women are subject to both legal restrictions on formal employment and cultural norms and practice that limit women’s public interactions. Many women thus have to resort to very informal, small-scale income-generating opportunities they can do from home. Other women lost their livelihoods when they suffered physical or psychological trauma during violence or displacement.

As Syrian women develop new livelihoods, they are increasingly exposed to protection risks, both inside and outside the house. In Syria, in areas of active conflict, the main threat to women’s livelihoods outside the house is widespread and indiscriminate violence such as aerial bombing and shelling. Women are also at risk of being arrested, exposed to harassment and sexual violence at checkpoints, targeted by snipers or accused of collaborating with the enemy when crossing checkpoints and front lines to obtain essential supplies or to participate in humanitarian activities. Among refugees, the difficulties of accessing legal residency (in particular, in Lebanon) and work permits, and the resulting lack of access to legal recourse, coupled with prejudice from host communities, create an environment conducive to (sexual) harassment and sometimes also sexual exploitation in the workplace. In addition, women also experience and fear harassment on the way to work.

Adolescent girls have had their education interrupted both inside Syria, and as refugees, and been forced as a result of dire economic conditions to assume livelihoods-related responsibilities early, including care for older persons or medical cases, or to get married early to reduce economic burdens on the family.

Both inside Syria and among refugees, there is a serious risk that domestic violence may increase as a result of household conflict over the roles of women, the changing economic balance of power between the sexes, and the related feeling of emasculation that men may experience.

The conflict in Syria, while devastating, has also opened up a window of opportunity for Syrian women seeking to expand their role in their families and communities. In Syria, women sometimes find work with community-based organizations, as teachers, volunteering as nurses, and doing home-based work. There is also a high demand for first aid practitioners, search and rescue teams, and (para-) medical staff, and women have begun to enter these fields. In agricultural production, Syrian women in 2015 constituted 65 percent of the economically active population, an increase of six percent compared to 2009.6

In Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, refugee women have also started to engage in small-scale income-generating activities to compensate for the absence of the traditional (male) breadwinner or his inability to work. Those with teaching qualifications can provide private lessons from home. Some women also work on farms.

While research participants confirmed that better access to work permits, and work opportunities would reduce their desire for third country resettlement, they also emphasized that Syrian refugees need educational opportunities, access to medical treatment, a sense of safety and acceptance, and more respect for their rights to be able to remain in host countries in the region.

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