Women in turmoil: empowerment as a solution to inequity
2 March 2023
The team from American University of Beirut – including Rouham Yamout and Joanna Khalil – has been working with female close-to-community health workers in Lebanon. The women are all refugees from Syria and suffer privations, disempowerment and the constant stress of balancing work and home life in a patriarchal society. This International Women’s Day [opens new tab] we hear from one of those women – typical of many in similar circumstances – and how she is asserting a right to work and claiming a level of independence and empowerment previously denied her.
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, many Syrian families in Lebanon found themselves deprived of any source of income. This was because men, the traditional breadwinners in this conservative society, had lost their jobs. Men also lost their mobility due to the pandemic-driven tightening of restrictions on Syrian refugees without legal residency – the status of many male refugees who had fled military service in Syria. Women mobilized where they could to remedy this situation and save their families, and many applied for jobs in the health sector. Indeed, women were more accepted by the community than men, and therefore more readily recruited by health care employers. Moreover, women, rather than men, were attracted to para-medical professions, and more likely to have received appropriate training back in Syria.
Local health institutions in Lebanon had no other choice other than to rely on informal health workers from the refugee community in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exodus of regular health staff due to the overwhelming economic crisis in the country, coupled with others avoiding work in fear of catching the virus and in protest at deteriorating salaries due to the devaluation of the local currency, meant that there was a shortage of health workers. The majority of those recruited to handle the COVID-19 response among Syrian refugees were women. However, this act of survival could not take place if women could not overcome social and family restrictions on women’s work. In certain Syrian regions women are allowed to study and get a job, but married women are prevented from taking part in paid activities as work is viewed as the man’s duty – ensuring the livelihood of his family.
To understand the journey of those working Syrian women, we discussed the matter with some of them. This story summarizes and exemplifies the experiences of women who have gained empowerment and independence while struggling for the survival of their families and maintaining their religious beliefs. It demonstrates how they navigate gendered social and cultural norms and standards to attain self-actualisation and support their communities.
One woman’s story
“I loved school very much, and was always the first in my class. I am the fifth child of a family of seven. I have four elder brothers, none of whom finished school. I am the first in my family to have graduated from school. After the ninth class, my father wanted me to drop out of school. He said nine classes it is enough for a girl who will get married and sit home. My teachers came to him in delegations to convince him. Thank God they succeeded and I could finish school. My father was almost crying from happiness, seeing at last one of his children being admitted to a Baccalaureate.
“I wanted to be a doctor and earned the grades to be accepted, however, there was not a medical school in our town and it was inconceivable for my father to let me study and live alone in another town. Instead, I opted to study nursing in our town’s nursing school. I thought I would graduate as a midwife to be called “doctor” like in my dream. The day I graduated from the nursing school was also the day I celebrated my engagement to my husband. Although I was allowed to take my practicum, it was clear to everybody that even if they let me study because I was smart and performed well no woman would be allowed to work for strangers in our traditions. I hesitated, why did I spend all those nights studying? Then I forgot about by career and instead was caught up in preparations for marriage, getting married, establishing my home, and getting pregnant. It was a dream, I was happy and did not think about working anymore. I was seven months pregnant with my eldest daughter when the war broke out in Syria. My husband, along with his family, decided to flee to Lebanon. This is how we have been refugees since 2012.
Becoming a refugee
“In Lebanon it was very difficult at the beginning. We had nothing and were living 20 people in a two-room apartment. But then little by little, things got easier. My husband worked as he could in daily jobs and we moved to a separate apartment, where I had three more children. We were thriving somehow. I was taking care of my four children and of household duties, and my husband was attending to our survival. Domestic chores and our children’s demands were endless, and I did not have any opportunity to miss nursing or to think about it, until COVID-19 broke into our lives. Everything was closed, my husband could not work anymore and could not travel to look for employment because he did not have residency – restrictions on illegal residents increased tremendously. Prices were increasing madly and we incurred debt after debt, spending everything on just surviving. Around us, everybody was in a similar situation. During this period, we were checked on by a medical team which included a nurse who was also a Syrian refugee. I suddenly remembered that I had a nursing diploma, hanging on the wall, and asked her to show me how to get a job. She gave me a phone number. My husband did not like the idea at the beginning, but then accepted it when it became clear that we did not have any other option if we did not want to die from starvation. I called the same day, and the week after I was recruited as a health educator to deliver COVID-19 prevention messages in refugee camps.
A new life
“Since that day, my life has changed completely. In the beginning I was lost between the competing requirements of my job and my children. I needed to adapt to the schedules, resolving transportation challenges, home schooling, cooking, washing and doing all the domestic chores. Then I started to organize my day in advance, and learned to drop some unnecessary domestic chores – such as ironing – or rely on my husband and my elder daughter to take over some simple tasks, and not complaining when things were not done as I would like them to be. I used all my smartness to attend to all my responsibilities, and keep everything under control.
“Little by little, I got more and more involved with my new job. I felt thankful to God that I was bringing money to the house, and helping my family to survive. On the other hand, I started to develop a new opinion about myself. I opened up to the world. I evolved everyday, learning new things, acquiring new skills, meeting new people. I changed, I became more open and a better person, and I understood that this evolution would not stop as long as I was attending to my work. I discovered that I can change the lives of people, I am enjoying communicating with my patients and their families, and I am proud that some of my beneficiaries call me “doctor”. When I realized that I was bringing good to those around me I felt happy, I gained confidence, and understood that I had become a worthy member of society. My work benefited my family. I brought to them all that I learned, I became more tolerant, more understanding, more thankful to God, because my children are smart and beautiful, and because my husband is loving and supportive. My family has also changed. When I come home after my work they greet me with appreciation and love. They are proud of me as much as I am proud of them.
“For the first time in my life, I feel fully satisfied. It is hard of course, but for me and my family the result is worth the hardship. My work has had a positive impact, not only for our family finances, but for the relationships and overall harmony in the family. Even the society of Syrian refugees, especially those coming from conservative areas, has evolved. They used to badmouth every working woman, accusing her of neglecting her children, claiming that “only God knows what this lady is up to” since she comes and goes at will. Now, when they see a women coming back home late, their first idea is “she must be coming from work, may God reward her for her hard work”. By behaving in a suitably modest way while preserving our traditions we demonstrated that a respectable woman can work without losing self-respect. Also, over the years the Syrian community has been exposed to a Lebanese society that has long overcome prejudices against working women. Of course, social difficulties remain us. For example, if women work nowadays it is only because their husbands and their in-laws allow them to. If your husband refuses, you can die from a desire to work but you won’t be allowed. Residual shame also remains: for example, I did not tell my extended family that I am working. I am protecting them as I know this news would make them feel ashamed.
However, I believe that society will evolve at some point, and some close day people will forget about their prejudices and will see a working woman as a source of pride and respect. Meanwhile, we women have gained the opportunity to be independent, worthy members of society, and maybe in time some of us will become great leaders and outstanding scholars. Definitely, we have made the first step to gain back some of our stolen rights, to break away from oppressive social norms, both at home and in wider society, and to recover from wars, being forced to become refugees and suffer deprivation and fear. I have now only one obsession: I want my daughters to get an education, to be able to work and support themselves, and for their future families to access a real life.”
- Blog post – “Together we do!” Establishing a female CTC providers’ support group
- Related study – The gendered experience of close-to-community providers in fragile and shock-prone settings: implications for policy and practice during and post COVID-19
- Related study – Close-to-community providers addressing gender norms and power dynamics: participatory action research in fragile and shock-prone settings
Image: AUB and LSTM staff engage with a female close-to-community health care providers support group during a workshop in Chtaura, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon