“Our womanhood has disappeared”. Changing gender roles among Syrian refugees

Over one million people have fled to Lebanon in the hope of escaping the violence in Syria. It is now widely acknowledged that war affects men and women differently as a result of conflict compounding existing gender inequalities; however the impact of displacement on gender roles is less well understood. Oxfam’s joint research with the ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality in Tripoli discovered that,
among the many challenges facing refugees, there is an additional stress of being forced to take on new responsibilities at odds with traditional gender roles. 

As we launch the findings of the research in a new joint report, Roula El-Masri from ABAAD explains more.

Myriam is 39 years old; 12 months ago she fled her house in Homs in Syria with her husband and five children. In fear of their lives, they made an overnight run from the escalating violence in their home city and arrived in Tripoli, North Lebanon. Although they have escaped the conflict, life is not easy for them or many families like them. 

Participant in the gender vulnerability assessment. Credit: ABAADIn Lebanon, Myriam leaves her house every morning to look for a job without success. Once a month, she goes to the local market to exchange vouchers provided by an international agency with food to cover the very basic needs of her family. Her children, three boys and two girls, are all less than 16 years old. 

“The voucher is not enough; I need further assistance to pay for the rent and other basic needs”, said Myriam with a voice filled with burden. Her husband Saeed has not been able to find a job, so Myriam has taken on the responsibility of providing for her family, alongside her usual daily household chores that she still attends to.

Myriam recently asked her three boys to quit school and find jobs. Although each of her sons earns only $33 per month, she hopes that it’s enough to support the family’s expenses. Living in Lebanon is more expensive than living at home in Syria where the state controlled prices and provided free health and education services.

When asked about how they feel about their new situation, husband Saeed’s voice is barely audible as he says: “I am not useful here, even my wife she can give, she has her household skills like cooking, cleaning but I…I do nothing. I just make demands.” As for Myriam, she says: “Our womanhood has disappeared. If you are staying in your house and your husband is providing you with all your needs, you will feel like a woman and feel your femininity”.
Shifting Sands Syria research report download

Back in Syria, Myriam, like many other Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugee women, had few opportunities to work outside the house. Since becoming a refugee she has been forced to take on new roles: going to the market, running errands and taking on informal paid jobs.  However, the fact that this change has been forced on her by circumstances has left her very unsatisfied. She does not feel that the new role creates a sense of empowerment or gives her a decision making status in the family. 

Shifting sands

Today Oxfam publishes a research report called Shifting Sands: Changing Gender Roles Among Refugees in Lebanon which covers the different aspects of the gendered impact of the Syrian crisis. The gendered situation and vulnerability analysis was conducted by ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality in partnership with Oxfam. 

The findings of the study illustrate the different ways in which crises affect women and men, as well as how the Syrian refugees’ lifestyles have changed, with both women and men being forced to redefine core aspects of their gender identities. For men, as well as losing their traditional role as breadwinner, as they are looking for jobs and services they also face threats and discrimination from some members of the host communities.

Both men and women are deeply unhappy with their current responsibilities and the changing gender roles created by the crisis.

Both men and women are deeply unhappy with their current responsibilities and the changing gender roles created by the crisis. Women’s workload has increased while men’s workload has decreased. Both situations are leading to added physical and emotional stress.

How can new productive roles empower women if they are not aware of the potential benefits or women resist assuming these new identities?

Can humanitarian actors acknowledge anxiety about changing gender roles, whilst also challenging traditional assumptions and attitudes?

Our report contains very practical recommendations for responding to different and changing gender norms, providing support to reduce anxiety and emotional stress and ensuring that access to aid is equitable and gender-appropriate. It calls on agencies and donors to design humanitarian responses that include an awareness of how the experience of becoming a refugee affects traditional gender roles and family dynamics. Only then can we provide an effective response and enable families to recover from the crisis. 

Read our full recommendations in the report here: Oxfam.org.uk/ShiftingSands

Author: Roula El Masri
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.