'No one asked…’: Amplifying the voices of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon on their power to decide
Globally, slow progress has been made in the past 30 years towards narrowing the gender gap in women’s decision-making power, though social norms and the highly gendered and patriarchal spaces where decisions and policies are formed continue to constrain women’s ability to voice their priorities (Domingo et al., 2015). As refugees, the limited influence that women have over decisions about their lives and futures is further constrained, as existing inequalities are exacerbated by conflict and displacement (Lafrenière et al., 2019).
In 2017, Oxfam in Lebanon published a protection research report (Shawaf and El Asmar, 2017) on Syrian refugees’ perceptions and expectations around their past, present and future.
Building on the understanding that life experiences – and specifically those of displacement and of being a refugee – are highly gendered, the research team identified a clear gap in knowledge around refugee women’s distinct experiences, expectations and decision-making power. This reflects a wider structural issue in humanitarian crises and responses, whereby women’s specific experiences are often overlooked, and their needs inadequately addressed.
Contributing to existing efforts to amplify women’s voices, this study focuses on the decisionmaking power of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon and explores the extent to which they are able to make and/or shape decisions that have direct implications for their lives and futures. By highlighting women’s voices and distinct priorities, the research argues that if these continue to be overlooked and excluded from decision-making platforms – from domestic and international politics, to personal, familial and communal spaces – then policy and programmatic interventions will fail to address women’s needs and concerns and to deliver real and lasting impact on their lives and futures.
Drawing on 40 in-depth qualitative interviews with Syrian refugee women in North Bekaa and Tripoli, the research findings explore different levels of decision making and unpack gendered social norms and power dynamics that shape the women’s ability to influence decisions about their lives and futures.
Decisions around daily life
Women’s descriptions of their daily lives in Syria prior to the war indicate that their main responsibilities related to care and domestic labour, and despite their sizeable contributions to agricultural work, this would only be considered an extension of those responsibilities. This gendered division of roles had direct implications on women’s decision-making power at all levels, and particularly within the family or community. In Lebanon, the same social norms are sustained. While their previous care and domestic role remains intact, displacement has imposed new responsibilities on women, such as generating income for their families. However, this has not translated into increased decision-making power, and women remain stripped of the power to make decisions about their own lives.
Decisions around safety and protection
For all 40 women interviewed, safety remains the priority, indicating that the decisions that are most important for them are intrinsically related to leaving or returning to Syria. In times of conflict, constraints to women’s decision making are exacerbated, and social norms continue to dictate set roles and take power away from women. Exploring the gendered dynamics behind the decision to leave Syria reveals that the final decision was always made by the man heading the household, though in some cases women did have some influence.
Initiating discussions around decision making for the future was challenging, as most women believe that any return to Syria at present would be very dangerous, and perceive return to a country that offers safety and the conditions for a dignified life to be a distant dream.
Information received from inside Syria – from friends and relatives – most heavily influences women’s expectations regarding return, and almost always highlights the situation as unsafe.
As with the process of deciding to leave Syria, gendered power imbalances continue to shape decision making affecting Syrian women’s lives. The voices, opinions and concerns of men remain at the centre, leaving little to no space for women to voice their own priorities. Women have expressed fears about being forced to return to an unsafe Syria by a male authority figure in their household.
The Government of Lebanon’s political discourse continues to press for the premature return of refugees. While the refugee women interviewed were aware of these calls, they had little information about how this translated into practice, though this is often brought up in conversations with refugee men. Women’s decision-making power is thus twice restricted: first by the pressure for premature return placed on refugees in the country, and second by information and decision-making being concentrated with men in their households.
Though decision making around returns is often perceived to be an individual or family process, interviews revealed that communities and community leaders also have power over such decisions. As patriarchal norms are embedded within communal decision-making processes, women are often excluded from these and compelled to comply with the ensuing decisions. Communal decision-making processes therefore pose an added threat to women resulting in their premature or involuntary return.
The women interviewed highlighted their own exclusion from national, regional and international platforms that discuss the future of Syria, explaining that these fail to reflect their realities and priorities. They are calling for their increased participation in all decision-making platforms so that their voices can be heard, as these processes have direct implications for their lives and futures. While efforts by Syrian women to be involved and engaged in such platforms do exist, they are very limited and the space for women’s participation remains extremely narrow.
Syrian refugee women’s conditions for return
Returns must be voluntary, safe, dignified and founded on informed decisions. Current conditions in Syria are not conducive for return. Syrian refugee women interviewed for this study identified a wide range of conditions necessary for their return. These can be divided into three main categories: safety, which accounts for the majority of their conditions; safe and sustainable access to services, livelihoods and infrastructure; and conditions related to border control both in Lebanon and in Syria. Interviewees made clear distinctions between what needs to be in place before they return, and what can be worked on if and when they return. All of the women interviewed insisted that the preconditions for return remain unfulfilled.
Syrian refugee women face layered and complex threats of forced return, at all levels where their decision-making power is constrained. Their experiences of displacement are highly gendered, and this has direct implications for the voluntariness (or otherwise) of their return – a fact that is often overlooked when power dynamics at all levels remain unexplored and when refugees’ experiences and needs are conflated. Constraints to women’s decision making at the personal level translate into further restrictions at the familial or communal levels and continue to materialize at the national and international levels. This cycle has direct implications for women’s lives.