Women in the time of a Refugee Crisis

By Myriam Fayad

When I enter her tent, Najwa is bent over her old sewing machine, her feet dangle on the pedal, giving rhythm to a silent melody. In the air, the fragrance of cardamom embraces the perfume of coffee and a general sense of calm comes over the room. It’s an oasis of peace in the chaos of the refugee camp. Najwa is one of the one and a half million people who fled Syria and found refuge in Lebanon. She grew up in the countryside of Hama, a city in west-central Syria. Coming from a rural background, she was married off at a very young age, dropped out of school and soon became a mother. She used to work more than 10 hours a day, as most rural women in her situation do, providing unpaid domestic and agricultural labour, with little or no access to the money she made. In Lebanon, she is now the ‘breadwinner’ of her family, contributing her homebased seamstress job to the household income.

Syrian Refugee Camp | Erin Wilson

Women’s labor participation in pre-war Syria

In 2010, Syria ranked 124 on the Gender Gap index together with Oman, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen at the bottom of the MENA region’s ranking. As a matter of fact, the Syrian constitution ensures the principle of equal opportunities for all its citizens and guarantees women to remove the restrictions that prevent them to fully and effectively participate in the political, social, cultural, and economic life of the country. However, the Labour Law severely discriminates against women in their access to economic opportunities. In fact, livelihoods opportunities for women are limited both by cultural norms and discriminative legal restriction. For instance, article 120 of the 2010 Labour Law states that the Minister should determine which activities women shall be allowed to perform at night and which others should be considered as harmful and immoral and should hence be prohibited. Moreover, no law specifically prohibits discrimination based on gender in hiring which gives women no tool to denounce discriminative selections.

Furthermore, the Syrian Personal Status Law, promulgated in 1953 and only slightly amended during the last decades, requires married women to have their husband’s permission to work and it determines women’s inheritance rights in accordance with Sharia, granting to a woman only half of her brother’s share of the estate. If women enjoy the right to own property, manage businesses independently and deal with their own income and inheritance, the patriarchal system puts enough pressure on them so as they hand over these tasks to their brothers or husbands, who feel culturally responsible for the financial maintenance of the women in their family.

Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil | Mustafa Khayat

Women in refugee context: changing gender roles

On the contrary, in refugee camps, many women found themselves as the head of the household, either because they are widow either because their husbands stayed in Syria, went missing, joined armed groups or left to another country in the hope of obtaining family reunification. Moreover, even when their husband is present, women are more likely to be the one working as men feel more restricted in their movement for fear of being stopped at checkpoints and arrested.

Being the new breadwinner of the family, Syrian refugee women need to find livelihoods opportunities that are ‘suitable’ for females, often running small-scale income-generating activities, mainly home-based, such as sewing, hairdressing, knitting and cooking, to avoid excessive interaction in the public sphere, that could undermine their ‘honor’ and therefore the honor of the family. In fact, while men have lost their role as sole wage earner of the family, they often struggle to accept the shift in gender roles and responsibilities, refusing to shoulder household tasks that continue to lay down on women or young girls. Moreover, men often feel emasculated which can result in an increase of domestic violence and family conflict.

Despite these difficulties, a window of new opportunities has opened for Syrian women, who are finding a new role in their families and in their communities. Najwa is just one of the many women I have met, who have found in the hardship of war and displacement a chance to assume more responsibilities outside the house. It’s a new light, getting in through the crack made by the war.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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