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Empowered Women, Empowered Children: Examining the relationship between women's empowerment and the well-being of children in Middle Eastern Fragile States

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Gender equality and the well-being of children go hand in hand. When women are empowered to live up to their full potential, their children prosper, but when women are restrained and denied equal opportunities within a society, their children suffer. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the lowest-performing countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2021, ranking 132nd, 152nd, and 154th respectively. Children from these three countries are greatly impacted by years of continuous internal and external conflict, an escalating economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. While assuring the well-being of children remains a global challenge, it is especially challenging for those in fragile contexts, where the vulnerability of children is greatly exacerbated by gender inequality. To explore the relationship between women’s empowerment and child well-being in fragile contexts in more depth, we designed a mixed methods research where we assessed the level of women’s empowerment through selected personal, environmental, and relational empowerment factors and looked at how these three empowerment dimensions in women are associated with the core well-being outcomes in children.

The findings showed that none of the surveyed women are empowered at a relational level. In a deeply patriarchal society, women have limited decision-making power within their families and limited control over household assets. Most of these women experience time poverty and continue to provide most of the unpaid care work, often leaving them with little or no discretionary time. Many of the women are also subjected to gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence, undermining their health, dignity, security and autonomy.

Unlike empowerment through relational factors, more women are empowered through personal factors. The majority of the surveyed women have moderate-to-high self-esteem and a positive self-image, as well as being spiritually empowered through their religion. Most of them have good mental health, are resilient, and can cope with challenging situations in their lives. However, the challenges encountered in their societies make it difficult for these women to break out of their traditional gender roles and consequently, the majority of them still hold self-sabotaging, discriminatory attitudes and beliefs.

In this region, the vast majority of the women live in communities with highly restrictive gender norms and relations that restrain their behaviour and limit their freedom of movement. Very few women are aware of their own civic rights (when such rights exist) and they lack access to much needed legal services. There is also very little legislation in the three countries that supports women’s rights and needs. Consequently, none of the surveyed women from any of the three countries are empowered through environmental factors.

None of the surveyed children achieved total well-being. Although most children are enrolled in formal education, the self-perceived functional literacy is still low in all three countries, particularly in the area of digital literacy, and attitudes towards learning are either neutral or negative. The surveyed children who do not benefit from humanitarian food assistance programmes, especially in Lebanon, have inadequate and non-diverse nutrition. Only a small percentage of the children have developed positive health-related behaviour and exposure to violence is prevalent, especially at home. In contrast to the physical and protection outcomes, the surveyed children showed better results in the areas of psychosocial and mental health. The majority of them are resilient, have empathy, and are spiritually and mentally empowered.

When studying correlations between the empowerment of mothers and children and their well-being, a number of significant associations were identified. These include displacement, the poor education of mothers, living in an extended family and marriage at a young age – all of which limit women’s empowerment and are negatively associated with child well-being outcomes. The study also shows that violence against women at home shapes a child’s physical and mental health incrementally, as well as increases the risk that the children will also be subjected to violence. On the other hand, participation in power structures, better time use, and increased decision-making power within the household enables women to better protect their children from abuse. Finally, the research identified a strong connection women’s mental health and children’s mental health and resilience.