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Gender roles for Syrian refugees are changing in Jordan's camps

Women in the Azraq refugee camp are finding a new sense of purpose in waged roles provided by NGO programmes
Young Syrian refugees stand around at the Azraq refugee camp in northern Jordan on January 30, 2016 (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

AZRAQ, Jordan - In the Azraq refugee camp, in the north of Jordan, the garden of the women's centre is an island of green. Flowers and plants are arranged in the shade and painted stone seats interrupt an otherwise relentlessly barren and beige landscape.

Under the canopy, Alaa and Badia are relaxing during a break in their work for the Cash for Work programme, which provides waged roles for camp residents through NGOs. The pair are volunteering in the centre, running community activities for a small hourly wage. Both speak highly of the way accessing work has changed their lives.

“I was really depressed before I was volunteering,” Alaa says. She has been in the camp for a year, and has been volunteering at the women’s centre for four months, running Zumba classes. As well as giving her and other women here a chance to get out of the house, she says, the work has given her a sense of purpose and structure and provides an income for her family.

But ask volunteers here what they want in terms of the future development of the camp, and the answer is often counterintuitive. Many here believe that what Azraq needs right now is more opportunities for men.

Women as breadwinners - it's complicated

Among both refugees and humanitarians, there is an ongoing perception that women have a better chance of working than their male counterparts. Alaa says she knows many men looking for work and families where the stereotypical gender dynamic of the male breadwinner is flipped. “He’s depressed that she’s the one who's getting paid work,” she says of a situation that seems to be recurrent in the camp. “But what can you do when you need the money?”

Fellow volunteers agree. Badia says she is now making money while her husband is unemployed – a situation she does not believe is ideal. “I’m paying for everything,” Badia says. “I’m trying to be supportive, but I can’t even believe the situation myself. I’ve become the breadwinner. I didn’t think this would happen.”

Are women really being privileged over men in the camps? Despite perceptions, the reality is that they are not. Men are still likely to be working more – but in a situation like Azraq, things are much more complex than they appear. 

Generally speaking, men in Jordan's refugee camps are still accessing employment more than women. Statistics from Zaatari show that 76 percent of total cash-for-work opportunities were occupied by men with further analysis by UN Women indicating similar rates in Azraq. Some humanitarian organisations are aiming for a 50-50 split between men and women for some Cash for Work roles, but say they are fighting stereotypes to do that. So where is the perception coming from?

Rachel Dore-Weeks, at UN Women, said she is often told that women are given preferential treatment in camp employment, a perception she believes is often counter to reality. She suggests that for some refugees, a small jump in women's employment could be being interpreted as men being overtaken. 

“It’s a shock to those Syrians that are coming from very patriarchal, conservative communities to see any kind of situation in which women are treated preferentially outside of their traditional roles,” she told Middle East Eye. “It’s the similar situation as when something isn’t being talked about at all and suddenly it’s being talked about 10 percent of the time. It seems like a massive increase.”

A switch in gender dynamics

Speaking to Alaa and Badia’s male colleagues at the centre, it is clear that gender dynamics have been dramatically altered by the transition to life in the camp. Men, used to providing for their families and having jobs in Syria, have suddenly found themselves in a sparse, aid-dependent economy.

Ahmed, who arrived in the camp more than two years ago, has been working at the women's centre for one year. “There’s nothing else,” he explains, laughing. Though he faced extreme hardship in Syria, the boredom and purposelessness of having nothing to do in Azraq made him feel lost. “I wanted to go back to Syria before I got this job,” he admits. “There was nothing, really. I was extremely depressed and I had no money.”

Just as men like Ahmed find themselves suddenly jobless, female refugees may more actively seek work, or find work in NGO programmes that would not be available at home. In these circumstances, the perception of women’s work can be exaggerated. Opportunities do not come close to equalling those of men, but they are seen as surpassing them.

The sparse conditions of the camp make the lack of jobs even tougher to deal with. Each family in Azraq has one caravan, so visiting relatives can be frustrating and unsatisfying as families crowd into cramped rooms – a stark change from life back in Syria.

Stress, boredom and powerlessness

“My relationship between me and my wife became really difficult,” Ahmed explained. “I was always at home, with all my stuff, getting in the way, and my wife and I argued a lot. Then I’d just spend my time out of the caravan, to avoid the problems.”

In some cases – and frequently in global instances of displacement and trauma – stress like this breeds abuse. Men frustrated at their powerlessness can take their anger out on their wives, and domestic violence rates often jump. But in Jordan’s camps, Dore-Weeks said, research suggests that women’s work may actually be decreasing gender-based violence.

“Going out to work means they get out of the house. If they’re working, they’re fighting less of the time,” she said. Given the traumatic circumstances of those who live in Azraq, she says, the improvement employment brings is generally a positive development. The stress it relieves is economic as well as social; spending power for families in Zaatari can increase by 1,450 percent with cash-for-work participation in jobs such as cleaning the camp, running sports classes, coordinating community activities, teaching children or even working on infrastructure development such as solar energy. These programmes relieve boredom and the relentless feeling of having nothing to do that characterises life in the camp.

“Women, especially in Syria, used to spend a lot of time at home, cooking and looking after the home.” Ahmed adds. “Now that's changed. They bring the gas, they go to the mall... It’s new for them. They feel now that they can do something, be more active, take the lead in different ways.”

Alaa adds that classes like Zumba give women a chance to get mobile and stay physically active in the camps. Back in Syria, her and her husband ran a gym together, and the absence of opportunity and movement in Azraq has affected them both. 

While many men feel the absence of the conventional role of economically providing for their families, the feeling of isolation is one of the biggest problems among women.

Many find themselves trapped in a tiny shelter all hours of the day, with little to look forward to and few opportunities for meaningful activity. “It’s dehumanising, not just emasculating. It’s something women struggle with as well, not just men,” Dore-Weeks said.

As men and women work to build up their lives in the camp, the gender dynamic within families is evolving in different ways. Ahmed says that now he works together with his wife to solve problems, rather than sending her to her parents' home if they have fights or disagreements. Working at the women's centre has changed him too. He says he's more patient now, and his wife is happier.

“She comes here to check on me now though,” he says with a smile. “Just to make sure I’m not sitting with the other women for too long.”

* Last names have been omitted for security reasons.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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