Women Head More than a Quarter of Refugee Households. What’s Next for Them?

I am their father. I am their mother. I am everything to them. 

Each year on March 8, the world observes International Women’s Day, a day to recognize both how far we as a global community have come, and also how far we have to go, in achieving gender parity. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the gender gap won’t close until 2186. 2017’s theme, “Be Bold for Change,” challenges both men and women to take bold actions that will advance the gender agenda; the WEF study also indicates that the economic gender gap is widening—following a peak in 2013, the global economic gap between men and women has now reverted to where it stood in 2008. At this rate, it will take another 170 years to achieve parity.

Women-headed refugee households, in many ways on the frontlines of the fight for gender parity, face an uncertain future. Without recognizing the unique economic challenges these women face, we risk plunging them into an ever-deeper cycle of poverty and exploitation. The Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis has irrevocably transformed the Middle East in both obvious and subtle ways. Millions of Syrians—often, entire villages and towns—have been displaced by the ongoing political unrest and violence, are now a permanent fixture in communities across Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In some cases, they comprise a majority; for example, in Mafraq, northeast of Amman, Jordan, it’s estimated that Syrians make up more than 88 percent of the city’s population. As new populations take up residence in the kingdom, Jordan’s economy, infrastructure, and social services are under ever-greater strain to provide—not just for Jordanians, but for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who now also call the country home.

Yet, the refugee crisis has also generated fundamental shifts in other areas: socio-cultural norms and expectations, specifically those pertaining to women’s economic roles and workforce participation, have been significantly affected by the realities of life in forced exile. For many Syrian women displaced by the war, this displacement has meant assuming new household and financial responsibilities. Leaving behind not only their husbands, but often, entire family and social support networks, these women are forced to become breadwinners and caretakers. Where their primary roles formerly might have been as a mother or wife, women are now increasingly assuming responsibility—including financially—for their families. In Jordan alone, 34 percent of refugee families are headed by a woman; with little indication that the Syrian civil war will end any time soon, this percentage will only increase.

Many factors contribute to the growth of women-headed refugee households; visa and other entry restrictions, in addition to remaining responsibilities at home in Syria such as caring for family members or property, these contributing factors mean that upwards of 145,000 women—over a quarter of the 500,000+ refugee households—now occupy the role of “head of household.” This means that in addition to maintaining their traditional roles as caretaker and homemaker, women-headed households are financially responsible for providing for their families. The situation is especially dire for Syrian women who do not reside with their families in a refugee camp. For those living in cities, employment opportunities are limited or altogether nonexistent only adding to the burden women-headed households already carry. Restrictive work visa policies, driven by the economic crisis and increasing pressures in host countries, further contribute to rising poverty rates and labor exploitation among women-headed Syrian refugee households. In 2016, of the more than 25,000 work permits issued to Syrian refugees, only 357 of them went to women.

However, despite exceptionally challenging circumstances, Syrian refugee women have taken on new roles in the economy—most notably, as entrepreneurs. In light of restrictions on formal workforce participation, many women-headed refugee households in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon currently operate informally. Due in large part to the work of organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), women-headed households now have greater access to the tools, training, and capital necessary to start and scale their . In southern Turkey, CIPE is working with the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) to promote entrepreneurship and encourage enterprise development among refugees; over half of the graduates from SEF’s Riyadeh civic education course are female.

Yet, many businesses led by women remain home-based and generate meager profits. Moreover, the market is crowded—after all, only so many women (and similarly limited refugee men) in a given neighborhood or city can sell the same product. Significant barriers in accessing additional loans also remain, and though training programs implemented by local and international NGOs are valuable, they do not perfectly align with market opportunities.

So what does the future look like for women-headed refugee households? In the near-term, prospects are bleak. Homebased enterprises can only sustain these households for so long, and increasingly, women are turning to dangerous, exploitative work to supplement their incomes. Informal labor drives long-term economic malaise on the part of both the refugee and host communities. By undercutting incentives for governments to provide opportunities to refugees within the framework of formal economic structures, informal work simultaneously limits the potential of these refugees to stimulate economic growth and perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty in which many refugees—but particular women-headed refugee households—are hopelessly entrenched.

Long-term, the well-being of women-headed refugee households will be determined by decisions that are made now—the decision to make a genuine commitment to economic integration for refugee women, the decision by both international bodies and host governments to work to find ways of generating sustainable solutions to livelihood challenges. Training programs to build refugee women’s skills, while meaningful, are simply not enough. Training must be linked to market opportunities, and market access. Most importantly, the well-being of women-headed refugee households will be in large part determined by the well-being of host communities; if one languishes, so too will the other. Alternatively, if one flourishes, the potential for the other to do so will also increase.

Moving forward, as the state of play in Syria changes, women-headed refugee households and their families will have to contend with the fundamental shifts in gender roles and expectations born out of financial necessity. If and when refugees return to Syria, or when they are joined in their new countries by husbands and fathers, women will (and must) continue to play a key part in ensuring livelihoods for their families. Women-headed refugee households, negotiating the space between traditional gender roles, cultural norms, and newfound economic potential, will be the drivers of growth in countries so desperately in need of it.

In the international community’s pursuit of durable solutions to the challenges facing Syrian refugees, and in its efforts to generate jobs in host communities, the livelihood needs and priorities of women must remain at the forefront of the discussion. The Jordan Refugee and Response Plan indicates that “with additional changes to employment regulations by host governments, it is expected that refugees will have improved access to employment opportunities.” If we truly seek long-term and durable solutions, women-headed households, among the most vulnerable of refugees, must take priority. A 2016 CARE report indicates that four out of five Syrian refugees live below the poverty line, and only 15 percent of refugee households in the country are considered “food secure.” Among women-headed households, rates of poverty and food insecurity are even greater.

Overlooking this critical demographic isn’t just bad for women—it’s bad for everyone. Economics, oftentimes a driver of political volatility, can likewise serve as a driver of stability. Women, critical to the success of peacebuilding, must then be included in efforts to generate economic growth and revitalization. What is often male-centric enterprise development must be expanded to include women, too; so too, must traditionally male-only enterprises reevaluate their approach.

Being bold for change demands that we, as a global community, take substantive steps that will advance the gender agenda. Promoting inclusive economic growth to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are empowered to be their own change agents, is such a step. Women-headed refugee households, a central figure in their own families and in communities across the Middle East, are such change agents.

Kate Moran is Program Assistant for the Middle East and North Africa at CIPE. 

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