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Women’s Economic Empowerment in Protracted Crisis: Syrian Refugee Women in Southeastern Turkey

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As Syrian refugee crisis entered its ninth year, the protracted nature of the crisis has become more prominent, with the need of better integration of humanitarian response and development goals. Livelihoods activities with their long-term focus play an important role in humanitarian development nexus. This research is conducted to review and discuss best practices and potential risks for women’s economic empowerment (WEE) projects in protracted crisis in general, and in southeastern Turkey context in particular. The following report should be of interest to any humanitarian organization that conducts livelihoods projects for Syrian refugees in SET region, and that shares the commitment to achieve a more gender-equal society.

In general, women face additional social obstacles to reach economic resources, which span from unpaid care work to gender norms regarding women’s being provider. Majority of Syrian women in Turkey are not actively seeking employment because of their childcare responsibilities, not getting permission to work from either their husband or extended family, care of disable and elderly in the household, and housework. Designing a livelihoods program without considering these additional obstacles women face means that the program is not equally approachable for all genders. Hence, women are the ones left behind as they are the less employable. This research clearly shows that the only way to have a sustainable impact on WEE is to ensure not only women’s economic advancement but also women’s empowerment and gender equality.


 The research shows that regular livelihoods projects in SET region are not equally accessible for women because of special social barriers women face in their employability, and hence creates unequal results for men and women. Livelihoods projects are more likely to select men as beneficiaries as they are the most reachable and employable.

 Syrian women do not constitute a homogenous group. There are and will always be different needs and preferences of Syrian women in SET region. Correspondingly, different livelihoods projects should be running at the same time.

 Women need to be supported throughout the value chain as they (especially the ones working at home) generally do not have required networks to keep their businesses sustainable.

 Most of the livelihoods projects in SET region reproduces the gender discrepancies by not considering women’s unpaid care work. The unproportioned division of unpaid care work between men and women is a problem, and needs to be addressed. We need to remind ourselves, unpaid care work is the top reason for women for not actively seeking employment both in general in the world2 and for Syrian refugee women in Turkey.

  • Research shows that newly-married women and widows are the ones less free in terms of their movement and employability. Most of them are restricted by their husbands or other male members of the family. Recognizing how masculinity plays a role here, and creating role models are crucial. It is important to encourage men and boys to examine how gender norms affect their own lives, and to think towards being an ally for a more gender-equal society.

  • When key informants are asked regarding possible interactions of livelihoods programming with GBV, most of them immediately pointed out their protection team. This is a reactive way of thinking, which regards GBV as unintended consequence that can be handled later.
    Often times, GBV is not taken into consideration while designing livelihoods projects.
    Whether and how the planned livelihood projects affect gender relations, whether they increase the risks of GBV, and whether they can be used to eliminate or prevent already existing GBV risks should be analyzed. In addition to considering changing gender dynamics within the household, workplaces and transportation also needs to be considered as women tend to work in informal economy and in exploitative work environments.

  • Humanitarian (I)NGOs sometimes need to work around gender norms to make sure women also have access to the support. In SET region, common examples are separating women and men spaces for an activity to ensure active participation of women who cannot participate in mixed gender activities; promoting traditionally female fields of work which women feel more confident and comfortable with; supporting women’s home-based business ideas which enable women continue meeting their care work at home. These activities work around gender norms to make sure women’s access to resources and support, which otherwise would not be accessible to some women. However, it is important for humanitarian staff to be aware that this kind of activities are reproducing gender norms on some level. While conducting such activities we need to be strategically think how to challenge and then transform these gender norms in the long run.

  • It is crucial to understand that the aim here is not to cease traditionally-female fields of work, or not to push all women to the public sphere. Yes, women can do any work. However, it is important to respect women’s choices. Indeed, forcing women for anything that they are not ready or not willing to do, is quite disempowering. The ultimate aim is to create an environment where all options that are available to men are available to women as well. The aim is to transform gender norms that prevent women to choose their work freely, deny their access to education, put extra shame for women working in public sphere.

  • Except a couple of examples in SET region, women’s empowerment and gender equality are not an integral part of WEE projects. Both past research in the literature and this research show that WEE is always need to be coupled with women’s empowerment and gender equality to have long-lasting results.

  • Gender relations are power relations, which are deeply rooted in our daily lives, and hence difficult to be challenged and transformed. Giving awareness raising sessions, which is the common practice in SET region, would do a limited work here. Creating role models and women-only spaces where women can freely share their experiences and raise their voices should be supported.

  • As gender a thoroughly cross-sectoral issue, a holistic approach is needed for WEE. This research shows how detached the sectors are. Sectors, once created for effective response and reporting, shape how we conceptualize humanitarian response. We should not forget the fact that what we called as different sectors in humanitarian response, like education, livelihoods, protection; are deeply entangled in complex ways in people’s lives. Operating without analyzing what is happening in the intersections of different sectors would result in ineffective interventions at best, and would most likely cause harm.