As I prepared for a recent Refugees International mission to Jordan to examine access to employment for refugee women, I repeatedly came across a common misconception as to why so few of the women were employed. The thinking is as follows: social and cultural norms in southern Syria, where many Syrian refugees in Jordan come from, prevent women from working outside the home. As a result, they have no work experience, and these norms continue to prevail for Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan. Or so the story goes.
However, in my interviews with dozens of Syrian women in the cities of Amman, Jerash, and Irbid, a different picture emerged.
First, many women are shouldering the responsibility of providing for their family. Several of the women I met said their husbands were considered too old or were not physically capable of doing the jobs that were available to them. Most of these jobs required physical labor, lifting heavy loads, and working long hours in difficult conditions. As a result, refugee women are stepping up and seeking ways to make a living for their families. That said, not all Syrian women have husbands. Indeed, nearly one-third of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are female-headed.
While some women would have preferred to stay home and look after their families, for many working is not a question of choice but necessity.
Second, it is wrong to assume that Syrian women have limited skills, experience, or expertise to bring to the workplace. I met women who were highly skilled – in sectors such as law, engineering, and accounting – but who were not allowed to practice their professions in Jordan. Others were keen to use the skills they had learned from years of raising their families – such as cooking and sewing – by setting up their own business. For a variety of reasons, many women said they felt more comfortable working within a home-based business. But regulations in Jordan make this approach to earning a livelihood very difficult for Syrians since they must partner with a Jordanian national in order to create a home-based business. This requires connections and relationships of trust that are not available to most. And with barely enough money to pay their rent, many women said they did not have the funds to invest in a home-based business anyway, however small.
Third, cultural norms that resist women’s work outside the home are certainly an issue but not insurmountable. Listening to a group of Syrian and Jordanian women who have established a bakery business in the northern city of Irbid, with the support of the International Labor Organization (ILO), it was clear that these challenges can be overcome. One of the women, a lawyer who had experience working with her husband in his store back in Syria, said that by taking the lead in talking to her co-workers’ husbands, she had managed to convince them to let their wives work in the business. She said they had even faced reproaches from their families back in Syria. “Now they’ve accepted it,” she said. “And they send us recipes.” No doubt, it takes time and effort to change established mind-sets, but refugee women are making headway. At the same time, though, other obstacles are keeping refugee women out of the workplace in Jordan: namely the lack of available childcare and transportation. These issues can be and must be addressed through targeted measures such as buses and on-site nurseries at their places of employment.
And finally, for many Syrian women I met in Jordan, working is not just about earning money to pay their families’ bills. It is about creating a successful business, expanding into new areas, and meeting new people. Too often, training programs that are available to Syrian women in Jordan are one-off events that aren’t designed to match the needs of the labor market. Engaging with refugee women as business leaders is key to ensuring their success, and to inspiring new generations of women who can fulfill their ambitions whether it is in Jordan, or one day, if conditions allow it, in Syria.
In early 2016, the Jordanian government, the European Union, and the World Bank concluded the Jordan Compact, an ambitious and innovative plan aimed at improving the livelihoods of Syrians and Jordanians that provides great opportunities for all involved. But only 4 percent of the over 100,000 work permits delivered to Syrians so far have been issued to women. This shockingly low figure is in great part because of the regulatory and practical obstacles refugee women face in accessing legal work. The Jordan Compact will only be successful if these obstacles are tackled and women are able to contribute their skills and their resilience to their host country.