- As of January 2016, 80 percent of the Syrian population was living below the poverty line, and the youth unemployment rate was about 78 percent, compounding many of the challenges facing Syrian women.
- The number of female-headed households has increased dramatically both inside and outside the country, with many men having died, been injured, or gone missing in the conflict. However, women receive substantially lower pay and are afforded fewer opportunities in the labor market.
- The sanctions placed on Syria by the international community, alongside the Syrian government’s reduction of food and energy subsidies, have radically increased the cost of living.
The conflict in Syria has had a devastating effect on the economy. The gross domestic product has contracted by at least 55 percent, and total economic losses incurred since 2011 are estimated at more than $254.7 billion. Eighty percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line and at least 50 percent live in extreme poverty. The overall unemployment level is 55 percent, and women’s economic participation is increasingly necessary as men are killed or seriously injured, leaving women as the breadwinners for their families. This need, combined with growing access to technology, has opened up opportunities for women’s cottage industries within the home. Female entrepreneurship has risen from 4.4 percent in 2009 to 22.4 percent this year.
Foreign sanctions on the Syrian government have restricted the import of goods, feeding black market economies that are largely controlled by armed opposition groups. Domestically, the Syrian government has prioritized military operations over public investment and the reduction of subsidies on basic goods, known as subsidy rationalization, has nearly tripled the cost of living.
Outside of Syria, female-headed households comprise 40 percent of Syrian refugee families in Jordan and 30 percent of those in Lebanon. Compared to male-headed households, these are significantly less economically stable, primarily because of discrimination in labor markets and the added responsibilities of childcare and domestic duties that prevent full-time employment.
Women have traditionally been marginalized from the Syrian workforce. Syrian women’s participation before 2011 was low (in 2005, about 16.3 percent of women were active in the workforce), but it has dropped even more since: in 2013, the percentage decreased to 13.5 percent. Despite being relatively well educated, local social and penal codes have prevented Syrian women from working. Legally, husbands are allowed to forbid their wives from working outside of the home and patriarchal norms oblige women to concentrate their time and efforts on domestic and childcare duties. Certain sectors, such as agriculture, education, and health care, have higher female participation, but women still rarely receive equal compensation or are granted ownership of land and machinery.
Because of the ongoing conflict, women’s participation in the workforce has been restricted in some ways and expanded in others. Widespread violence has affected women in particular as their movement is restricted not only by conflict violence, but also reinforced by patriarchal norms and fear of sexual violence. According to Global Gender Gap reports, women’s economic participation in Syria dropped from 22 percent in 2010 to 14 percent in 2015, but this likely indicates that women’s work has become smaller-scale and informal rather than that it has disappeared. Women have taken a leading role in informal education and healthcare provision, and women’s participation in entrepreneurship programs has increased by 18 percent since 2009. New technology has also enabled small-scale, home-based business creation. For example, in Aleppo, 50 women formed a cooperative to sell soap and now earn $150 to $200 per month.
Craft professions are the most common jobs for women in Syria, but in one study, nongovernmental organizations were found to be the most desirable employers because of their training programs and consistent pay structure. Such programs are run primarily in areas such as Tartous, a coastal city in western Syria, that have been relatively stable throughout the conflict in part because of work by groups including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The UNDP runs a number of cash-for-work programs in Tartous that target internally displaced women and children to provide stable income and a lower cost of living for the community.
Internal trade has been greatly disrupted by the fighting and extensive damage to infrastructure. This fragmentation has led to the rise of “war traders” under the protection of different armed groups; 17 percent of the economically active population is engaged in crimes such as smuggling, theft, arms dealing, and human trafficking. The Islamic State’s largest source of income had been the sale of oil, followed by antiquities, and women in areas controlled by the group controlled were encouraged to stay at home and to work only in fields such as health care and teaching, where the mixing of sexes could be prevented.
In refugee communities, women’s participation in the workforce remains very low. Though female-headed households constitute 40 percent of Syrian refugee families in Jordan, only seven percent of Syrian refugee women in the country work. In Lebanon, Syrian women earn on average roughly half of what their male counterparts do and only a quarter of the Lebanese minimum wage. This leaves many families unable to procure the most basic necessities, requiring children to drop out of school to earn additional money and rendering women vulnerable to sexual harassment at the hands of landlords and aid workers.
Policy Implications and Challenges
Syrian refugees have experienced significant barriers to working in host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey due to legislation that restricts their right to work. To gain a one-year work permit in Jordan, refugees must be sponsored by an employer, and there are quotas for Syrian workers that prevent them from crowding out Jordanian laborers. Lebanon announced it would waive the annual $200 residence renewal fee for Syrian refugees, thus eliminating a major financial barrier to legal residence for hundreds of thousands of people. This aims to facilitate Syrian participation in the formal, taxable sector, as currently 92 percent of economically active Syrians in Lebanon are involved in the informal sector. Turkey uses similar employer-sponsored work permits, but they can only be issued after six months of residence, leaving refugees vulnerable in those first pivotal months and, as of April 2017, only four percent of refugee work permits had been issued to Syrian women.
The Syrian economy was sustained through the first few years of conflict thanks to significant help from Russia and Iran, but international sanctions and the ongoing cost of the war have taken a devastating toll. When the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board was formed in 2014, one of their first demands was the removal of economic sanctions on the Syrian people so that a transitional process could be launched. This demand, however, has not been met.
The trade deficit is enormous, reaching 27.6 percent of GDP in 2015, depleting foreign reserves and pushing mounting debt onto future generations of Syrians. In an effort to decrease the budget deficit, the Syrian government implemented subsidies rationalization, which has increased inflation and cost of living. This worsening economic situation has wide-reaching and serious ramifications: economic instability and increasing unemployment have been repeatedly linked to radicalization and spikes in terrorist attacks. To ensure a safe and stable Syria in both the immediate and long-term future, rebuilding the economy must be prioritized by the Syrian government and the international community.
The Shifting Role of Women in Syria’s Economy
The Syrian war has transformed women’s role in the workforce, giving way to opportunities previously reserved for men. As women take on more responsibility and autonomy, for many opportunity does not mean equality.
BEIRUT – The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on women. It has also shifted their role in the workforce, inadvertently opening the door to previously male-dominated employment sectors. Consequently, women are becoming increasingly influential in the public sphere and in shaping Syria’s future.
“The traditional role of women is changing because of the war,” Mariah Saadeh, a former independent MP who has campaigned for women’s rights in Syria, tells Syria Deeply.
“Women’s responsibility is in the family, and they dominate the majority of the work in the place of men.”
This positive – if slow – shift for women has come at a devastating price. After seven years of conflict, many of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed, injured, forced to flee the country or joined in the fighting, significantly decreasing the number of working-age men. The result is that women are now the decision-makers and breadwinners in almost one in three households.
“The thing is, no one feels that it’s a particularly great thing that women gain power and opportunity because men are missing and dying, so it’s a very complicated step forward,” Bonnie Morris, a gender studies scholar who teaches courses on women and war, told Syria Deeply.
“But it often reveals, to many people’s surprise, how competent women have been all along, given the leeway to develop their talents.”
On paper, women should have had equality with men since Syria adopted its civil and commercial codes in 1949, granting women the right to control their own assets, own property and manage their own businesses. However, some laws limit these freedoms. The penal code, for example, permits husbands to forbid their wives from working outside the home.
In 1973, Syria adopted its current constitution, stipulating that women should have equality with men and that obstacles to their advancement be removed. Article 45 guarantees women “all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effective in political, social, economic and cultural life.”
Culturally, however, women’s roles and responsibilities continued to be largely confined to the home, erecting societal barriers that have blocked them from several sectors of employment or the opportunity to work in general.
In May 2017, the Jordan-based Bareeq Education and Development non-profit carried out a survey of Syrian women over the age of 18 inside and outside the country. Of the 1,006 respondents, 81 percent said “that the social norms in Syria truly impede women’s success.”
Seven years of war have chipped away at some of these barriers. By 2015, between 12 and 17 percent of households in Syria were female-headed. And that ratio has risen from 4.4 percent in 2009 to 22.4 percent this year, according to a report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Before the war, in 2010 women made up 22 percent of the formal labor force. Since 2011 that number has dropped, but formal labor opportunities have decreased for both men and women and the latter are now more likely to be found earning through informal and small-scale work. The female employment rate in 2015 was 14 percent.
In some sectors, women make up the overwhelming majority of a workforce. In some areas of Syria 90 percent of the agricultural workforce is female.
Necessity has also forced them into roles that were unthinkable before the conflict. Saadeh says there are factories in Damascus almost totally populated by women.
“They work in restaurants, in services. They go to factories, they do agriculture, they make the handmade things. They are the base today for the future,” Saadeh said.
The conflict has also allowed women to break into the civil society, media and government sectors – something that was consistently prevented prior to the war.
Advocacy groups and NGOs pushing for women’s rights have existed in Syria since 1949. Despite the government’s widespread crackdown on organizations that did not “agree with with all government policies” several, including the Syrian Women’s League, continued their work. But “their members still faced the threat of arrest and detention,” according to a 2005 report by Catherine Bellafronto, a specialist in business development in the Middle East and North Africa.
At the same time, many women did not “have access to, or are not comfortable using the media, professional associations, or NGOs as forums for expressing their opinions,” according to the report.
According to the Syrian Network of Female Journalists, women make up 54 percent of the radio workforce in emerging media – outlets set up after the war broke out in 2011 – and 35 percent in print.
However, as the conflict changed over the years and more hard-line groups took control in opposition-held areas, women’s participation in public life in some places has become more difficult.
“Access to information and access to jobs or opportunities have decreased for female journalists, and now a number of them are working behind their laptops instead of covering the front line and being more involved in the coverage,” Milia Eidmouni, co-founder of the Syrian Network of Female Journalists, tells Syria Deeply.
Female journalists also come across a problem common in many lines of work: Despite women finding themselves able to work where once they might not have, opportunity does not mean equality. Only 4 percent of senior journalists in the Syrian emerging media are female.
“From our experience and the feedback we got from [Syrian Network of Female Journalists] members, all of them are saying that men and women don’t get paid equally, but they are facing the same issues and risks,” Eidmouni says.
The increase in autonomy and responsibility of women has not been accompanied by equal opportunity. Income in female-led households “tends to be below that of male-headed households,” according to the March 2016 research assessment “Women, Work & War” published by CARE. In the southern province of Deraa, for instance, female-headed households’ monthly income is 15-32 percent lower than those headed by men.
As the conflict continues, more and more women are building skills and taking on employment. Some learn on the job, while others developing their skills under NGO or United Nations programs.
The U.N. Development Program, for instance, supports female-headed households through workshops, vocational training and emergency employment opportunities in areas of women’s expertise. According to the UNDP, in 2016 alone the organization provided job opportunities for 6,103 women heading households.
Yet the cultural barriers and social stigma are far from being completely eradicated. Many Syrian women are highly educated, but due to war “adolescent girls have had their education interrupted … and been forced as a result of dire economic conditions to assume livelihoods-related responsibilities early,” says the CARE report. Consequently, the majority continue to take up work that is deemed “appropriate” for their gender, such as teaching, health care or craftwork.
“If women are the less educated ones in the family they often are stuck in menial positions that are not necessarily empowering,” Morris says.
“For women who are better educated, there’s often a necessity to take a job that they might feel is beneath them, and then there’s a lot of bitterness about that.”
The question for Syria moving forward once the war comes to a close is whether women’s place in society has changed forever. According to a report by Bareeq, 88.36 percent of Syrian women believe the fight for women’s rights is a legitimate right, while 96 percent believe a woman’s role is both at home and at work.
However, Morris warns that as Syrians return to their country and reconstruction begins to take place, the desire to recreate a state of normalcy could lead to a conservative backlash where traditional roles are encouraged.
However, many champions of women’s rights in Syria are hopeful that women’s increasing participation in Syria will increase and become permanent.
“I believe there’s no turning back to what was before,” Eidmouni says. “But we need to work to make it happen for everyone.”
For now, with millions of refugees outside Syria reluctant to return because of the ongoing conflict and the country’s uncertain economic future, the new status of women in the workplace could outlive the war and the inevitable return of normalcy for men that an end to violence might bring.
“I think if there’s a percentage of men who does not accept women working, they cannot do anything. If they don’t accept women working, then they will pay the price, because women today do everything … If they stop working that will create a lot of trouble,” Saadeh says.
“Today, the woman is stronger and more responsible, and these seven years of war have proved that women can do anything.”
Alessandria Masi contributed to this article.