The business of empowering women: Insights for development programming in Syria

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Changes in household composition due to battlefield deaths, displacement, and military recruitment have meant that many households in Syria have experienced a gendered restructuring, and as a result, have lost significant sources of income. This has led — and at times forced — more Syrian women to pursue income-generating activities1 to cope with the radical changes taking place in the economic, social, and political spheres.

To date, international development agencies have largely viewed Syria’s changing gender dynamics as a vehicle for women’s empowerment, as they support programming intended to strengthen the role of women in Syrian society. Many of these initiatives are wedded to the prevailing narrative that women’s economic engagement leads to empowerment. As such, it is often taken at face value that boosting women’s entrepreneurship or labor force participation is a precondition for social and political emancipation. To a large extent, women’s empowerment initiatives undertaken by development actors have thus approached women as beneficiaries of programmatic interventions designed to equip them to engage in income-generating activities, as a stepping stone toward greater participation in the household, the community, and, ultimately, the public and political domains. As this paper seeks to show, the assumptions that undergird such programming must be reconsidered.

This paper highlights several overarching challenges to the empowerment paradigm. Most importantly, this research shows that women’s participation in economic activities does not equate to empowerment on a more holistic or ultimately meaningful basis. At best, an approach that correlates economic opportunity with women’s empowerment is tenuous. At worst, it is blind to the myriad factors that shape women’s choices, and it ignores the complex nature of empowerment itself. Moreover, this paper contends that the prevailing conceptualizations and methods of quantifying empowerment are often ambiguous and divorced from context. As a result, they fail to address the many dimensions of women’s empowerment that are equally critical, but exist beyond easily measured economic factors. Ultimately, these shortcomings arise not only because of flawed or partial conceptualizations of women’s empowerment, but also because of institutional factors, including resistance that is entrenched at the organizational level.

This paper is based on extensive desk research and numerous, wide-ranging interviews both with Syrian women engaged in economic activities and with international response professionals focusing on Syria. Although many of the conclusions of this research are drawn specifically from the Syrian context, they are by no means limited to Syria. On the contrary, these conclusions are relevant in any context in which gender-responsive or women’s empowerment initiatives are needed — which is to say, universally. Of note, this research does not specifically assess the design or implementation of any particular donor-funded women’s empowerment initiative in Syria. Rather, this research seeks to show the contextual realities of the broader operational environment in which donor-funded women’s empowerment initiatives in Syria are undertaken. Above all, this research seeks to cast light on the inherent limitations of gender-responsive programming that either focuses exclusively on women as beneficiaries or which treats access to economic resources as the core activity of empowerment initiatives. Instead, this paper argues that a holistic, community-based approach is needed in order to grapple with the real complexity of social norms and traditional roles and responsibilities that continue to dictate women’s relationship to work, their social surroundings, and their sense of self-worth and well-being more broadly.

Key Takeaways

The ongoing conflict has opened space to women in the Syrian economy. These changes are not guaranteed to last once the conflict ends.

Frequently, new economic opportunities open to women when conflict upends the existing social order. The challenge, however, comes when violent conflict ends. Men returning from frontlines often displace women from roles they occupied during periods of conflict. Without substantial social change, the sustainability of women’s newfound economic prominence is therefore in jeopardy.

Economic activity by women does not, in itself, lead to empowerment.

Women’s engagement in economic activities can indeed be empowering, especially if a woman exercises control over her own income. However, we should not conflate money and power. Women’s engagement in economic activities does not necessarily break gender binaries, achieve equality, or change stereotypes about women. Increased economic activity is thus one dimension of a broader women’s empowerment initiative that must be multidimensional in order to achieve its real objectives.

Gender-responsive programming can reinforce the very gender stereotypes it intends to upend.

Often, activities are confined to areas perceived as “appropriate” for women. For instance, vocational training activities that are limited to traditionally “feminine” economic activities reproduce gender binaries and stereotypes concerning gender division within labor skills, and also reinforces existing norms concerning the types of work that are “acceptable” for a woman.

Women who engage in economic activities often shoulder a “double burden” of paid labor and traditional care work. Program activities seldom account for this reality.

Engagement in the labor forces is most often measured through macro-scale assessments of general economic conditions, which speak to the public domain but overlook the private domain. Unless care work is taken into account, the “double burden” will continue to undermine women’s well-being.

Donor-driven initiatives have largely failed to address structural impediments to women’s empowerment.

Specifically, the creation of siloed programming and funding streams dedicated exclusively to gender-responsive programming has limited the reach of such initiatives and reduced overall impact in terms of the broader social, political, familial, and infrastructural challenges that women face. As a result, such programming often neglects community-level dynamics that intersect with women’s oppression and inequalities.

**Gender initiatives must target men and social structures as a whole.

Women sometimes refrain from participating in program activities because their husband or family does not consent. Sometimes, this is due to the activities’ perceived inappropriateness according to cultural norms. However, to blame “culture” or “tradition” for the inability of some women to engage in these activities is flawed and misses the point altogether. Rather, program design should ensure that responsibility for women’s participation — and, more importantly, structural reforms — do not rest solely with the women themselves.