Understanding Society

No place like home: Empowering women in displacement

According to UNHCR, the world is experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the end of the second World War26 . Millions of people are fleeing man-made and natural disasters to seek a better life. Recent Ipsos studies conducted with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq show that within an already challenging context, gender inequality and discrimination lead to particular suffering among displaced women and girls who bear disproportionate economic costs and are at heightened risk of violence and exploitation.

Displaced women often take on extra roles and responsibilities within and outside of their homes. This may be because there is no adult male provider present, or because economic hardship means a heightened need for women to contribute financially to the household. While this may be viewed as empowering, some view it not as a choice, but as hardship required for the survival of their families.

“I know many women whose husbands are not working because the opportunities for men here are very, very limited, so women are the ones who work. This causes huge mental stress.” Mona, 50, Amman, Jordan

Coping with economic hardship

As a result of limited financial resources, four-fifths of women have struggled to meet their family’s basic needs. While few women work formally because of legal restrictions, some have been forced to work informally, typically in traditionally female roles: cleaning houses, mending clothes, watching or tutoring children, and cooking for neighbours or friends. At least 80% rely on negative coping mechanisms to deal with their economic hardship by borrowing money or selling assets, restricting food intake, or sometimes withdrawing children from school – boys so that they can contribute to household income and girls to enter into an arranged marriage.

The risk of violence

Our research shows that displaced women are also more vulnerable to violence. Almost 30% of women said that violence towards them has increased compared to before the Syria crisis, and many felt that they have limited options for respite or justice, believing that it is unlikely that authorities in displacement will respond positively or adequately.

Syrian refugees who participated in Ipsos’ study spoke about experiencing violence in the public sphere, including unwanted attention and harassment. There were instances of attempted exploitation of Syrian refugee women, including among humanitarian service providers. Women who were the heads of their households, or living without an adult male present, were most vulnerable. For some women, fear of the unknown and for their safety in displacement has led to them having far less interaction with the outside world than before.

“In Jordan, the violence rates have increased towards women. People think Syrian women are in need and they will do anything to get help.” Ghosoun, 54, Irbid, Jordan

Accessing help

Despite the breadth and depth of their needs, in the qualitative research, we found the majority of displaced women find the humanitarian assistance they receive to be insufficient and inconsistent, making them even more susceptible to exploitation. A major barrier to accessing assistance is awareness – many women reported not understanding the aid system, not being aware of what services exist, and not understanding how or where to access them.

Empowering women in displacement

The findings from our studies confirm that women suffer the consequences of displacement particularly acutely. Therefore, it is essential to develop gender-sensitive programming that can mitigate the risks faced by women in displacement and that will empower them to meet both their daily and long-term needs. With this in mind, Ipsos has proposed the following guidelines for best practice when working with women in displacement:

  1. Prioritise women’s access to services and women’s empowerment through gender-mainstreamed programming (which ensures that gender perspectives and the goal of gender equality are central).
  2. Increase access to employment services and financial resources for female refugees, actively targeting them for livelihoods programming.
  3. Support interactive, safe spaces for female refugees to meet, network and socialise, including availability of psychosocial support services.
  4. Improve information sharing and awareness raising of available services.
  5. Promote accountability for violence against women, particularly within the refugee community.
  6. Recognise the positive correlation between the strength of women’s movements and organisations and gender-equal societies, and invest in women-led organisations.

Kaitlin Love
Ipsos North America