Do Refugee Crises Shift Gender Norms?
Well, It’s Complicated….
Well, It’s Complicated….
Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan are changing the ways in which they understand gender norms as they try to adapt to their difficult circumstances. In a dramatic shift from their pre-crisis lives in Syria, more women are working out of financial necessity, and are taking greater responsibilities for daily chores outside the home. Women told us that these changes have made them feel more independent. Yet, the story is not so simple. The same pressures that have led to greater autonomy have also heightened vulnerabilities. There is more tension within the household, young girls are out of school, and there is a greater tendency towards early marriage of young girls.
These results are from a qualitative study funded by UFGE that accompanied a quantitative survey with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Northern Iraq. For the qualitative study, we conducted 56 focus groups between April and September 2016, 28 each in the two countries and for each gender. We selected three governorates in each country with the largest Syrian populations, and a mix of urban, rural, camp, and non-camp settings within each governorate. We wanted to understand the adaptation strategies of Syrians on income generation, household dynamics, housing, law & order, and migration choices.
Refugee families are struggling financially. Three in four households reported not having enough to eat. 90% of refugee households in Lebanon and 70% in Jordan (who live outside camps) said that they have difficulty paying rent. Under these circumstances, women are entering the labor force, often as first-time entrants. Women whose husbands are disabled from the war are sometimes the sole breadwinners for their families. Women mostly work in service jobs (e.g., as cook or cleaners), or as daily agricultural workers.
“I did not work in Syria. I work here as a cleaner in a private school. My husband is 47 years old and he has 4 fractures in his body. Our rent is 225 JOD and it is too much for him to pay it all by himself.”
[Female, rural, Irbid governorate, Jordan]
“My husband was a tailor in Syria but he lost a leg in an explosion and he is disabled now… he cannot work…I work in a salon near my house to ensure our livelihood, but it is still not enough…”
[Female, Beirut, Lebanon]
Even though the jobs are poorly paid, women who work told us that they felt strong and independent.
“My husband tells me that I have changed. He is right. I am more independent because I work. I don’t wait for him to give me money.”
[Female, urban, Irbid governorate, Jordan]
“I feel stronger. I depend on myself for everything now.”
[Female respondent, Beirut]
Even if women are not working, their sphere of activity has expanded. In Syria, women rarely stepped outside the home. Things are different now because of the precarious legal status of refugees in their host countries. In Lebanon, most Syrians have expired residency documents, live illegally, and men (much more than women) fear detention at police checkpoints. In Jordan, Syrians are only allowed to work in a few permissible jobs, and the men fear workplace raids. Since men’s mobility is curtailed, women are stepping in.
“In Syria men did everything. Here we go and buy what we need because our husbands can’t go everywhere.”
[Female respondent, urban, Beqaa governorate, Lebanon]
While there is greater autonomy on the one hand, it is not without its downsides. Women told us that the men are stressed and nervous about finding work, paying the rent, and meeting other expenditures, and take out their anger and frustration at home. Couples are fighting more at home, and both men and women report mental health problems.
“My relations with my husband changed a lot. We became so angry and we are not able to endure listening to each other Sometimes I feel that I want to leave everything and go alone because of the psychological stress I am passing through.”
[Female respondent, urban, Irbid governorate, Jordan]
Men acknowledged that the lack of financial stability has negatively affected their relations with their family members.
I’m a man who cannot always ensure his family’s needs. When I am without work for many days, I become nervous. I shout at the children. I shout at my wife. It’s a very bad feeling for any man to see that his children need something but he can’t buy it for them.
[Male respondent, Beirut, Lebanon]
Only 24 percent of refugee girls are in school in Lebanon. While the number is higher in Jordan, it is still very low. Both men and women told us that this is because they cannot afford to pay the school fees. While adolescent boys are put to work, some families are taking the decision to get young girls married at earlier ages. As a general practice, it was not unusual for young girls to marry early in Syria. The minimum age of marriage with court approval in Syria is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. While many refugees were in principle against early marriage, they conceded that poor finances, an inability to afford schooling, having too many daughters, and the fear for the safety of young refugee girls made families consider the option.
“I have three daughters and a son. I want them to get married because of the bad conditions we are living in. Maybe their husbands can provide for them what I cannot. I want my daughters to get married at 12.”
[Male, rural, North governorate, Lebanon]
Conflict situations thrust people into situations that are beyond their control. In the process of coping and forming adaptation strategies to survive their difficult circumstances, some gender norms of Syrian families have been broken while others have been reinforced.
 “Reporting on Gender-Based Violence in the Syria Crisis: A Journalist’s Handbook”, UNFPA, 2014