Op-ed: Women continue to bear brunt of Syrian refugee crisis

By Eman Ismail, Deputy Country Director, CARE International in Jordan

“We walked over dead bodies, children’s bodies…all families were divided, separated.” Hadija* was 28 and single when she was separated from her family, each member running a different direction, after heavy shelling struck their town in the Aleppo countryside.

Terrified and desperate to escape the chaos, she jumped into a random car heading south. “We were only looking to the sky, locating planes, hoping to avoid explosions,” she told us.

Divorced from her husband, Hadija*, 32, lives with her two children in a one-room apartment in Mafraq Photo:MacIsaac/CARE

Months later, alone, vulnerable, and still separated from her family, Hadjia had to take work on farms in southern Syria just to get by. Finally, in an effort to seek refuge in Jordan, she resorted to marrying another Syrian she had met at the border. He was also seeking safe passage but immigration officials made it easier for those who were married or with family. Today, with two children, the now divorced mother is unable to work, and struggling to ensure a secure future for her family, despite multiple challenges.

Hadija’s story is like that of too many vulnerable Syrians, especially women and children who have risked their lives escaping war rather than stay and face likely death.

A new report published by our agency identifies troubling trends for Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Of 1,447 refugees surveyed, 82 percent continue to live in poverty, 89 percent are impacted by debt, and more than 79 percent are using negative, or even harmful coping methods in order to help cover their expenses, including child labour and early child marriage, although these numbers were lower than reported in previous years, (child labour dropping to 4 percent and early marriage to 2 percent, in 2017).

Although 30 percent of refugee households surveyed were female-headed, the same percentage of women reported gaining their income from working, while many more, 44 percent, relied on either local or international organizations. Still, more than half of Syrian refugee women say their greatest need is for cash.

Now separated from her husband, Hadija is alone caring for daughter Retaj, 4, and son Motaz, 15 months. She describes her experience when she was pregnant with Motaz and living on the streets. “I had no money, and no protection… I sought many ways, any way, in which to find a roof above our heads, even for a night. All of my belongings were in one bag. We slept in mosques and at the entrances of buildings, I even asked strangers visiting a local hospital if we could accompany them as family members, so my daughter and I could stay indoors, even for a short while. I was not embarrassed to do anything because I felt threatened for my life and the life of my daughter.”

Retaj, 2, in the house her mother rents in Mafraq. While substandard, it’s an improvement from their first years in Jordan, when the family slept in mosques and at the entrances to buildings. Photo: MacIsaac/CARE

With only a fifth grade education, a single mother with two young children, Hadija has found few opportunities for earning an income. After studying tailoring and receiving a sewing machine in a CARE-supported vocational program, Hadija is able to sew clothing for her children, but making a living from this skill is more difficult. Positions in factories are usually remote and not suitable for a single mother. Her arthritis makes it difficult to return to farm work, and even if she could, there is no one to care for her young children. Hadija’s options are limited. She says she can only hope for an end to the war –otherwise she is counting on her son to one day be the “family’s rescuer”. But Motaz, her son, is only 15 months old.

Other women, like Muna, 41, have the benefit of older children who can help care for younger siblings when she is out working, cleaning homes in the neighborhood. This income is essential for Muna, a single mother of eight, who insists her children’s education remain a priority. With her meager earnings, she pays for bus transportation to school, as well as food and other basic needs. For now, Muna’s rent is covered by an international aid agency, but only until October. After that she is uncertain how they will live. “I really don’t know what to do,” she told a CARE field team. “Every day and night, I ask myself, what will I do when our housing contract ends?”

The international community is supporting agreements like the Jordan Compact, mobilizing international financing in an effort to boost economic development in Jordan with the aim of benefiting both Syrian refugees and the host community. In turn, the Government of Jordan agreed to encourage legal employment by easing restrictions on work permits. However, there remain obstacles as CARE’s report found that only one in five Syrians holds a legal permit. Women, in particular, have been left behind as permits necessitate a one-year contract and limited to sector ill-suited to most women who prefer to work in home-based activities, or in the informal sector, for the flexibility it provides them. However, employment in the informal sector may also open women up to increased vulnerabilities, including a lack of legal protection or benefits. Still in our study, both Syrian and vulnerable Jordanian women asked for increased vocational training or assistance to create a home-based business.

CARE’s programs in Jordan offer both Syrian and Jordanian women opportunities to participate in vocational training, in tailoring, commercial cooking, and laptop repair, and we are piloting programs that help women create appropriate business plans with start-up funding for small businesses. This will better meet the increasing needs of women impacted by the crisis and their changing roles and responsibilities within the family.

In helping meet these needs, governments must commit more funding to international assistance that will help tackle gender inequalities, including those in humanitarian and protracted crises. Women and girls face specific obstacles that must be addressed as they are increasingly called upon to take more active roles in earning household incomes. Our programs can better address these changing roles, ensuring that women like Hadija and Muna are supported and their lives made more resilient, not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of their families, their communities, and our own.

For these women and countless others, the international community can go a long way in working to increase the economic empowerment of women, certainly among refugees but also in host communities like Jordan. More opportunities for vocational training, microfinance, and support for both Jordanian and refugee women who are employed in informal sectors will help working mothers find the flexibility they need in continuing to care for their families while they support them financially. This is particularly necessary as the crisis enters its seventh year –and refugee resilience, especially for women, must not be overlooked but instead made a priority.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.