Redefining roles

Refugee women take on new roles in their families

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Fleeing conflict, leaving one’s home, and settling in a strange—and often unwelcoming—environment is challenging. For female refugees these challenges can be compounded, as many experience a shift in their accustomed gender roles. Many women in Syria played the role of housewife, but in Lebanon they must assume a new role—that of breadwinner.  The 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR), a report compiled annually since 2013, estimates that 18 percent of households are female-headed and that 16 percent of women participate in the labor force. The percentage of women engaged in formal or informal employment is low, but most women take on more work as a refugee, even if that work is leaving the house to collect humanitarian aid. Executive interviewed six refugee women; only one said her role in the family largely remained the same.

This shift in gender roles affects all female Syrian refugees, whether single or married. But the breadth of work refugee women engage in is varied. While some refugee families can afford apartments in Beirut, and as a consequence, typically have improved access to more diversified labor markets, some live in crowded informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley and are limited in the type of work that is available to them.

Saja Michael, a gender and diversity technical adviser at ABAAD, a gender equality organization, says that socioeconomic status plays a large role in determining what type of work refugees may find. “If you’re a Syrian refugee who’s a bit better off, definitely you’re going to have access to employment opportunities that a Syrian refugee from a lower socioeconomic class will probably not have access to,” she says.

For those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, many find work in the fields. The 2018 VASyR cites that of employed women the highest percentage work in agriculture (38 percent). According to Michael, whether the woman came from urban vs. rural areas in Syria also often gives an indication as to what type of work, if any, they did back home.

Increasing responsibility

“It’s important to understand where they’re coming from in Syria,” Michael says. “So if you’re coming from urban vs. rural, I think it’s an oversimplification to say Syrian women are more-used to child rearing. In some areas, I think this is the norm, but in more urban settings, women are more likely to be economic providers and caretakers.”

Wiam Ghabash, originally from Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, worked for the Syrian Ministry of Health as an English teacher for nursing students. Arriving in Chtoura in 2014, for her finding work in Lebanon was a continuation of the norm. She works here as an IT and digital security trainer, and runs training sessions on human rights and women’s rights at Women Now for Development, an organization that works with Syrian refugees. But even for Ghabash, who has degrees in public health and English, finding work in Lebanon was challenging.

“It was a difficult stage,” Ghabash says. “I remember spending eight months walking in the streets, looking for jobs. I reduced the expectation to the minimal level. Like, it’s ok if I get a job answering the phone in an office or cleaning offices.”

While Ghabash would have been happy to do any job to support her family of six, she eventually picked up a six-month contract at Oxfam, but this did not solve her long-term financial problems. She says that the Lebanese system makes it hard for Syrians to find work; even if they find work with an NGO, the contract cannot be extended past six months for Syrians.

Syrian refugees began arriving in Lebanon in 2011, and currently there are just under 1 million Syrians registered with UNHCR. Shortly after Ghabash made the trip to Lebanon, at the end of 2014, the government introduced new policies aimed at reducing the number of displaced Syrians. These measures included requiring Syrians to register with the UNHCR and sign a pledge not to work, or to find a Lebanese sponsor to stay in the country legally and pay a $200 residency fee every six months.

For four years Ghabash renewed her residency without issue because she had signed the pledge not to work. However, the last time she went to renew her permit, General Security had learned she had been working and stamped a deportation notice on her passport, effectively rendering her immobile within Lebanon. Ghabash is confined to an approximate 10 kilometer radius around her home for fear of what might happen if she is stopped at a checkpoint.

Ghabash’s future may be uncertain, but she knows for sure that she is not going back to Syria. UNHCR has an agreement with the Lebanese government that they cannot forcibly return anyone to Syria. She has applied for asylum in France and Italy and was waiting for her asylum interview when Executive spoke with her.

Ghabash’s story is just one example of the myriad challenges Syrian refugees face in Lebanon. Following these new regulations, in May 2015, UNHCR suspended registering refugees all together per the host government’s decision, leaving many refugees without documentation or the ability to obtain it.

At this point, more women had to find work as they were no longer able to rely on humanitarian aid to feed their families, says Sabah Hallak, a gender expert at Citizenship League, an NGO that works with Syrian refugees. Confined to working in the construction, agriculture, and environment sector per Lebanese labor law, refugees are limited in their opportunities to find employment. Female refugees are further limited because construction is a typically a male-dominated field. Hallak says that most work in the informal sector, primarily in the fields picking crops. This, of course, is seasonal work, meaning that in order to survive on these earning you would have to save.

Making ends meet

Saving money, however, is hard when wages are low. For those who work in the fields, Michael estimates that women and children may earn LL4,000 – 6,000 for a four to five hour shift, and many will work two shifts a day, making their daily wage around LL8,000 – 12,000. Men make around LL15,000 per shift. A refugee in the Sheikh Raja settlement outside Chtoura in the Bekaa Valley who preferred to be mentioned by her first name, Jouriya, recalls making LL6,000 for a five hour shift, while the men “made more, because they are men.”  An International Labor Organization (ILO) report using data from 2014 found that Syrian refugee women earned on average LL248,000 per month, where the men’s average earning was LL432,000. Women earn less than men, and where women are the sole economic provider in a household, like Jouriya, they will likely be more hard-pressed to make ends meet than men in the same situation.

Jouriya worked in the fields three years ago, but now she has established a tutoring center for 19 children in the camp and also studies radiology. She is the only one in her family of five who works. Even though she charges LL55,000 per month, most people cannot afford her fee, so they pay her what they can. She says she earns around $40 per month to support her family. Her parents are too old to work, and her brother has not been able to find any, leaving the brunt of the responsibility on Jouriya’s shoulders.

In Idlib, Jouriya and her family owned their own land. The family grew their own food, and Jouriya taught fourth graders in her hometown. It was a simple life, but a stable one. Here, her family receives the UN nutrition card each month that comes loaded with LL120,000. When asked if this and her income from tutoring are enough to feed her family of five, Jouriya says, “we do our best.”

Part of the reason many women accept agricultural work, even though the wages fall far below minimum wage (LL30,000 per day or LL675,000 per month) is economic necessity. Women are also more vulnerable to losing hard found work. If a contractor needs to reduce the number of workers on the site, the women are the first to go, says Frida Khan, a senior gender specialist in the ILO Regional Office for Arab States.

An ILO program, the Employment Intensive Infrastructure Program (EIIP), established in 2017, sought to help both men and women get into jobs in the construction sector. Participants are guaranteed employment for a certain number of days in the EIIP program, and then, ideally, will find other work in the sector. As the EIIP guarantees both a period of work and the minimum wage, it is an attractive option for Syrian refugee women who are often underpaid and struggle to break into male-dominated sectors.

Even though many women must work out of economic necessity, most refugee women would prefer not to, both Khan and Razan Hussami, founder of Anamel, an organization that works with refugee women, say separately.  At the onset of the crisis, more refugee women reported going outside the home to make economic contributions to their families, but this did not necessarily mean working in the fields. Up until early 2015, women left the home to collect humanitarian aid at designated locations. While it was not a job, women felt burdened by the extra responsibility of having to collect aid in addition to taking care of their families, Michael explains.

Others have learned skills such as sewing or cutting hair to earn money. Across the country, programs have been established to provide refugee women an opportunity to learn new skills and provide a place where they can work to support their families.

One example is Hussami’s program Anamel. In a two-story workhouse in Bchamoun just outside Beirut, women learn skills they can use to make a living. A tutoring center at Anamel offers women reading and writing classes, and children who cannot attend school, either because they lack proper identification or there are no available spots, also learn at the center.

Hussami says that many women who attend training sessions at the center are then able to find work in the community, and that these kinds of programs give women a sense of purpose and community and are empowering. Hallak, however has a slightly less optimistic view of these type of programs.

“At first we taught them sewing and hair cutting; some learned to make handicrafts,” she says. “But now, things are not good in the camps. Who needs the coiffeur?”

A difference in opinions

It seems organizations, in their attempt to help provide women with livelihoods, flooded the market in camps for these certain skills. Hallak says now there is a shift to teaching women English and equipping them with computer skills. These types of skills may benefit women in the long run, but the restrictions placed on Syrian workers in Lebanon in terms of which fields they can legally work in and the limited jobs available will make it difficult for many to apply these newly learned skills and join the workforce.

Miriam, a refugee from the rural area outside Raqqa, and Sarah Youssef Hussein, originally from a rural area of the Idlib governorate, do not work but have differing opinions on the matter.

Hussein fled to Lebanon in 2012 with her husband and son, and, unlike Miriam, would love to find work, but if she works there will be no one to take care of the children. They have had two children since coming to Lebanon. Her husband, who has no formal employment, typically begins his day under a bridge near the camp and hopes to find a day’s work. If successful, he will earn around $10 that will go toward feeding a family of five. Her family used to collect $260 a month in aid she says, but they have not received any help since October 2018.

Miriam, once illiterate, has been learning to read and write at Anamel for the last two years. Before going to the center, she spent her days at home alone. Everyone in her family of eight either go to work or school during the day, and, for Miriam, studying is a way to pass the time.

“At least when I go back to Syria, I didn’t waste my years here,” she says.

In Syria, Miriam took care of her family and tended the family sheep and garden. When the fighting in Raqqa intensified in 2014, the family sold its sheep and fled toward the border, eventually settling in Bchamoun. Miriam considers herself lucky that her husband and two daughters work, so she is free to continue her homemaker duties, largely as she did in Syria.

Like Miriam, Souad from Abu Kamal in the Deir ez-Zor governorate in Syria, a sous-chef at Anamel, would rather take care of her seven children than work. Another woman at Anamel, Zahra from Aleppo, teaches women to crochet three days a week, and while she enjoys her work, she feels guilty that she cannot spend more time taking care of her family.

ABAAD’s Michael says that, as a women’s organization, seeing women become providers and playing a larger role in their households, staff at ABAAD were excited. But this did not necessarily reflect the reality for the women; many were overburdened by their new role. “Any working woman has two jobs,” Michael says, referring to the pre-defined role as caretaker in addition to any income-deriving activity.

For the women who worked before coming to Lebanon, like Ghabash and Jouriya, this shift seems less harsh. But these women are still the primary economic provider for their families. For women like Souad and Zahra, their shifting role is more dramatic as they did not work outside the home in Syria. Perhaps the only commonality is that refugee women, for the most part, have an increased role in caring and providing for their families as refugees, regardless of individual feelings on that role.

“From what I’ve seen from four years working here, I see a definite change in gender roles,” Ghabash says. “Maybe this is a positive side of the war, that we have an increased role here. Some focus on the work and exploitation. The other side is that they’re the decision-maker, the breadwinner. They’re not aware that it’s a privilege.”

Lauren Holtmeier

Lauren Holtmeier holds a masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and has worked on refugee issues at the American University of Beirut.