For many of the millions of Syrian women who have fled their homes to escape armed violence, the grass isn’t much greener on the other side.
Instead, women who relocate or cross the border seeking safety often find themselves in dangerously unstable and isolated situations with little support.
There are more than nine million internally displaced Syrian persons and refugees. Two-thirdsare women and children.
Although crucial, efforts by governments and relief organizations to provide basic necessities for survival, such as food and shelter, mask the need for a closer look at how the Syrian crisis impacts various sectors of the refugee population in different ways.
Double Jeopardy: Refugee and Woman
The effects of wars on civilian populations disproportionately target women in specifically gendered ways. With the rapid deterioration of security, societies become hyper-patriarchalized through violence, marginalizing women, and threatening their daily security.
Rights and humanitarian groups includingWomen Under Siege and theInternational Rescue Committee have documented how sexual violence is being used as a war tool in Syria—one of the main reasons women are fleeing the country.
But there’s less focus on how gender-based violence and insecurity persist outside of Syria.
Exploitation in public spaces as well as inhousing projects lacking security is a particular problem, where basic needs like seeking medical attention or using the restroom can become a point of struggle.
And although women compose up to 80 percent of the refugee population in some areas, their concerns often go unassessed and unanswered as they lack representation on refugee housing councils.
For Syrian women refugees who flock to urban areas seeking work opportunities, being outed as a refugee is often the doorway to exploitation, where others seek to take advantage of their assumed economic vulnerability.
Exploitation in the form of sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence become everyday realities.
Exploitation in the form of sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence become everyday realities that refugee women come across through landlords, employers, and sometimes even aid workers. These are all people that refugees are dependent on for something, which opens an avenue for exploitation.
The war has fragmented communities and altered family dynamics so many more women are now the sole breadwinners for the first time.
What makes this an even more difficult transition, and what many observers and aid workers don’t realize, is that most refugees were previously economically independent, and were not in need of support from others in this way before being displaced.
Syrian women refugees, often undocumented or uninformed of their rights,are frequently viewed by employers as targets for sexual exploitation, manipulation, and overwork for little pay. Some employers will prefer to hire Syrian women specifically so they can pay them near nothing.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch documented a case of a woman who cleaned homes in Beirut to support her children after her husband was detained indefinitely in Syria.
In nine out of the ten homes in which she worked, she experienced sexual exploitation.
Authorities in refugee housing units—both in camps and urban projects—need to do better with countering exploitation, holding offenders accountable, and developing gender-sensitivesecurity mechanisms, but more proactive and sustainable measures should be implemented as well.
Switching Gears for the Long Haul
If the past three years have been any indicator, we know it may be a while before refugee communities ever return home. Governments and NGOs working around the border should, then, look beyond emergency and temporary solutions of survival, and instead, evaluate strategies for longer-term stability for women refugees.
The spike in sexual exploitation and violence against Syrian women refugees must not be viewed as an inevitable part of conflict zones, and predation on women as simply collateral damage during a crisis should not be accepted.
Creating Safer Zones for Women
With a displaced female population numbered in the millions—inside Syria, but also spread across the countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt—the challenge of better ensuring women’s security and livelihood is huge.
A frequent entry point for abuse is through a dependent relationship—the need for housing, employment, and even relief aid.
One way to disrupt such exploitative cycles is to instead offer avenues for self-sustaining and income-generating activities. That is, providing jobs where the risk of exploitation is lower and the work affirms female workers’ dignity and personhood while giving them space to grow their skills.
Such grassroots models exist, and ought to be expanded and supported. Organizations like NuDay Syria and Thabitoon al-Ard (“Steadfast on the Ground”) have been successful in this regard.
NuDay Syria’s Female Breadwinners initiative, founded by Nadia Alawa, centers the needs of women, and specifically mothers, in everything they do.
Alawa says the initiative aims to support displaced women in making a living through “a dignified manner without having to compromise themselves or the safety of their children.”
The program consists of knitting outerwear—shawls, blankets and children’s clothing that usually sell individually for $5-$8, so workers are able to make around $20-$40 per week.
Photo credit: NuDay Syria, Facebook
“We try to be fair (with the costs) while still keeping in mind this is a social business, so ideally, the program will be self run,” she said. Some women knit on their own while others work collectively in NuDay Syria’s office space.
Alongside clothing manufacturing, Female Breadwinners also provides “learning circles” to train women to become teachers in their own communities or nearby refugee schools.
Thabitoon al-Ard, founded by Shaza Barakat, also aims to fill in the education vacuum.
Barakat, a refugee herself, said there are five million Syrian children who are not in school. An educator in Syria for 29 years,Barakatdecided to open a school in Istanbul in 2012 called Shaamuna (Our Syria), which actively seeks to provide work opportunities for Syrian women refugees who can provide quality education to Syrian children.
At the school’s founding, Barakat thought it would only need to operate for a year or so, but now in the fourth year of the war, Shaamuna has grown to four schools in Istanbul with 2,500 children and 150 staff members.
Thabitoon’s other big success story, like NuDay Syria, is its textile productions. Barakat, a 49-year-old long-time activist who lost her son and husband in the war, also started this social business in 2012.
Women refugees [should] not have to ‘extend their hands to anyone.’
Thabitoon opened its first textile center in the rural Turkish town of Reyhanli, which now employs 35 refugee women who produce clothing, carpets, and decorative accessories. Most of the women working there are widowed; all have lost some family members.
Barakat said she was inspired to teach this sewing vocation so women refugees do not have to “extend their hands to anyone,” a euphemism for exploitation.
Thabitoon’s approach is relevant and conscious of the nuanced struggles of women refugees. When Barakat realized not all women could make it to the center’s building, they started employing women who live in refugee camps, allowing them to work from home where they create handmade wool products using raw materials that Thabitoon provides.
In an effort to reach refugee women in urban areas as well, Thabitoon just opened a second office in Istanbul. “Thabitoon #2,” as Barakat refers to it, has its own challenges, but conditions there are better than in Reyhanli, where housing and unemployment are much worse.
Photo credit: Thabitoon al-Ard, Facebook
“We Need Someone Who Will Teach Us to Fish”
For both NuDay Syria and Thabitoon, the workers, blueprint, and the need is all there.
Unfortunately, funding is not. “There are many other ideas we can develop once seed money is available and we have more resources, but nobody supports these social business projects. That has been frustrating because these mothers are in Turkey to stay and more will come,” Alawa said.
Barakat shared this sentiment, “We are severely underfunded. We have costs for rent, equipment, raw materials, workshop trainings, and salaries–we want our workers to be able to run their homes and pay their bills.”
So far the group has relied on personal donors and Syrian expat foundations based in the US and Gulf countries. Sometimes, these groups even rely on support from one another—for example, since Thabitoon cannot afford renting a gallery to sell its products, sometimes NuDay Syria will purchase its items to help sell them abroad.
“We need more support until we can stand on our own feet. International agencies do not help us. Neither does the UN. For Syrian refugees, there’s nothing left but crumbs,” saidBarakat.
Income-generating initiatives are not a cure all for women’s exploitation, but they are a step in the right direction. Certainly, we need to move beyond the current focus on the here-and-now of survival and charity efforts, and think further into the future, toward rehabilitation and what will come after the war.
We have to find those who believe in teaching us how to fish rather than handing us a fish each day.
In all her work, Alawa stresses her approach is one that consistently affirms and emphasizes the self-determination of the women she works with.
“To me, these women have arrived traumatized with huge personal losses—without having had to be in charge on their own for their families before. By offering them … options to earn funds, I strongly believe we are empowering them and doing so in a dignified way,” she said.
When the war is over, the work done by initiatives such as Thabitoon, NuDay Syria, and others will make healing and transitioning into a healthy life more manageable.
“We are in a huge nakba (catastrophe). And women have paid the greatest price. We have lost our men and children, and many of us have fled with no support,” Barakat said. “Some people try to help us temporarily. But we are in the fourth year of the Syrian nakba. We have to find those who believe in teaching us how to fish rather than handing us a fish each day.”