“Refugees bring so much with them and have so much to offer, but we must learn to listen,” a colleague recently said of her project promoting refugee chefs in San Francisco. Her words struck me, both because they are true in every country and because they resonate with the underlying limitations of the world I work in.
During my time with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in Jordan, the country pioneered the “Compact” model, by allowing Syrian refugees to work in exchange for much-needed international investments. The idea has been described as a “paradigm shift” in refugee response.
Success has mostly been measured through the number of work permits obtained by Syrian refugees. So far, only a very small number of these permits – 4 percent, according to Ministry of Labor figures – have been issued to Syrian women countrywide. While the Compact is proving to have the potential to transform the way we approach refugee situations, for the time being it is failing women.
By the time the Jordan Compact was written, Syrian refugees had been fleeing to Jordan for several years. Refugee men and women had been telling us who they are, what they did before leaving Syria, what their skills are, what they left behind and what they believe in. But have we been listening?
The information UNHCR collects through its considerable investment in registration – which aims at ensuring that all refugees are documented and protected, and their vulnerabilities are identified – shows that the vast majority of Syrian women in Jordan self-reported being stay-at-home mothers, working on the family farm or doing some work from home within a general category denoted as “housewife.” The only profession where women worked in significant numbers was teaching.
When the Compact was devised, such insights should have prompted further reflection. For example, why are so few women working outside the house? What are their expectations and hopes? Is life in exile further marginalizing them or offering them unexpected opportunities? Has the opportunity and/or necessity of having to go to work made their family life more difficult?
“Refugee men and women had been telling us who they are, what they did before leaving Syria, what their skills are, what they left behind and what they believe in. But have we been listening?”
In 2016, the first attempt to employ refugee women in the garment sector was revealing of the difficulties to come. Six job fairs were organized, 213 women attended and 82 signed up for a factory visits and interviews. However, on the morning of the factory visits only 24 women showed up. None of them made it to the production line. Women later described high transportation costs, long hours away from home, child care and other responsibilities at home as the main barriers.
Over two years and many focus groups later, some progress in the number of Syrian refugee women employed in factories has been achieved thanks to better job matching, subsidies and welcoming employers. But women refugees continue to worry about taking care of their family alongside a full-time job that includes a lengthy commute. Most women prefer to work near or from home. Social norms are a further limiting factor. When Areej – a Syrian refugee living in Zataari camp – said “no husband really wants his wife to work,” a sad silence descended on the focus group.
When I look at the results of UNHCR’s participatory assessments with refugees in Jordan, there is one element that is constant and recurrent in what women say – that home-based businesses are a good start to earn money and contribute to the family income. While some practitioners consider home-based work as a barrier to women’s empowerment because of the isolation it can create, it is important to listen to what Syrian women in Jordan are asking for.
Recently the government of Jordan, concerned about economic competition from these small businesses at a local level and the risk of social tensions, has restricted the support that Syrian home based businesses can receive. A cabinet circular was shared with development and humanitarian agencies informing them that they are only allowed to help with grants or other technical support to businesses set up jointly by Jordanians and Syrians. There is little clarity on the possibility for Syrian home-based businesses to be licensed and registered.
Despite advocacy by humanitarian organizations, the government does not seem willing to ease their formalization. But informality limits scale and increases protection risks. Given the importance of working from home, I believe this directive is a setback to the economic inclusion of refugee women.
As Jordan has also been debating within its own society, long before the arrival of Syrian refugees, women are key to solving the development challenge for all societies. Knowing what women can contribute and learn is a first step to their economic inclusion.
Jordanian initiatives like Ana Mish Haik” , which aims to combat patriarchy and stereotypes, seem promising, as do many projects promoting women entrepreneurs and professional women. However development investments and refugee support must be inclusive of women of all backgrounds.
“As Jordan has also been debating within its own society, long before the arrival of Syrian refugees, women are key to solving the development challenge for all societies.”
A recent World Bank study in Jordan examined questions such as: Do women in Jordan want to work? How do men feel about working women in their family? To what extent do personal beliefs and societal expectations influence a woman’s decision to work?” These should be standard questions in any refugee situation.
While these questions were answered by many studies conducted in Jordan with refugees over the last few years, we should make that sure such questions are analyzed in a standard manner and used for advocacy and for supporting design of policies more effectively.
As I reflect on my recent years in Jordan, I still have many questions of my own. Does the Jordan Compact enable people – and especially women – the right to decide how much and how quickly to change? How can we analyze social dynamics and social norms and together design change? I feel strongly for example about promoting child care as a shared responsibility within the family. But is this a discussion that we are all are ready for? How do we work with men to facilitate their wives’, sisters’ and daughters’ participation in the work force in an unfamiliar setting?
These are quite challenging processes. But for the next steps, and for the design of future and better Compacts, let us focus more on the skills and work aspirations refugee men and women have right from the moment of their arrival. Let us pay more attention to social norms before defining policies and setting employment targets. Let’s listen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the U.N. refugee agency nor the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.