A woman in Aleppo knits as part of the handicrafts project, which allows her to earn an income (Photo by Jesuit Refugee Service Aleppo)
Syria, 13 October 2014 – During the anti-apartheid years in South Africa, the phrase "strike a woman and you strike a rock" was popularised by the growing involvement of women in the struggle. In Syria, the role of women has taken on a less aggressive, but no less significant role.

Across the diverse range of ethnic, religious and socio-economic layers that constitute the Syrian population, women have responded in a myriad of ways to the conflict. Their engagement in different spheres points subtly to a burgeoning of a new social dynamic that has come about as a result of the upheaval caused by the war. 

A longstanding concern in Syria is the scarcity of international NGOs physically present inside the country. Consequently, local organisations and networks of civilians have spearheaded a significant amount of the humanitarian response, delivering essential services, normally provided by the state or INGOs. The significance of women in this work, both as distributors and recipients of humanitarian assistance, has been pivotal in ensuring this assistance reaches marginalised communities. 

The conflict has caused a noticeable shift within social dynamics that had been largely unchanged for decades. Born out of sheer necessity, Syrian women have transformed themselves into agents of change.

"Our lives were predictable prior to these past three years. We all knew the beginning, middle and end of our stories. Then this conflict happened, and our lives' trajectories were forever altered," says Anisa* a 40-year old Syrian translator and English lecturer who is actively involved with a local organisation providing emergency relief for up to 10,000 displaced families per month in Aleppo.

"I felt so purposeless before. I had no engagement with the wider community. Now I know Aleppo and Aleppans like never before. This forced interaction with people I would otherwise never have met has changed my whole outlook." 

Entering the informal workforce.  The vast majority of the nine million Syrians in need are displaced; women of internally displaced families have undergone a complete turnaround of traditional roles within their family and community structures. With the loss of male role models in the home, women, often from poorer communities, have become breadwinners.

For women from rural areas who lived on subsistence farming, their displacement into urban areas has left them not only without their means to daily survival, but in an entirely new context where their skills are not sufficient to ensure survival. Overcrowding and a lack of privacy is common. This also gives way to many protection issues surrounding women and children. 

"We are seeing women involved in activities that we never saw before. They are selling fruits or vegetables on the street. Some bake and sell bread if they can purchase flour; others offer to clean houses. They are being pushed to be innovative in order to earn something. They bear an enormous responsibility now," says Nishat* a JRS worker in Syria. 

Livelihoods projects have been in high demand in an attempt to provide an alternative income to women using skills they have already mastered: sewing, knitting, crocheting, soap making, cooking and bread baking. All goods are procured and sold locally, with all the profits going directly to the women.

Education. One of the most pressing issues is the impact of the war on Syrian children, an estimated forty percent of the population. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), fifty percent of registered refugees in neighbouring countries are children. These figures are staggering and fears of a 'lost generation' of Syrian children are rife amongst humanitarian agencies.

Within Syria, many children have been out of school for two to three years. In areas where schools are still operational, many parents fear sending their children to school due to indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas, such as schools, by warring parties. 

Education is not seen as an integral part of an emergency response in most humanitarian initiatives. However, in light of increasing protracted conflicts, more NGOs are shifting their approach to view education as part of an emergency response, rather than a strictly developmental role.

Psychosocial support. To help mitigate these stresses, the mother-to-child centre model has been used in Syria, whereby both mothers and children attend the same centre at the same time, but are separated to partake in different activities. The mothers receive training on how to assist their children to cope with trauma.

For instance, the Jesuit Refugee Service psychosocial centre in Aleppo adopts a similar model in cooperation with neighbourhood partner organisations. These classes aim to equip mothers with techniques to encourage their children to learn, even if they spend most of their time at home.

Unfortunately, due to limited resources, strained staff and large volumes of children in need, time devoted to each child at informal education centres is insufficient in comparison to in the formal public education system.

As such, mothers are integral to encouraging self-learning at home, as many are the dominant figures in the household. Through enabling mothers to enhance their literacy skills, the development of children continues to progress.

Another function of psychosocial support is in addressing issues of domestic violence. "We find in the families we work with that there are significant rates of abuse by either the husband, father or brothers towards women. The women feel unable to save themselves, and in some cases the psychological pressure has even led them to self-harm."

Support groups have played a significant role in offering women psychological support, which gives them the confidence and the ability to confront and debate contentious issues with others in similar situations. They create a language through which they can express their opinions and feelings based on the techniques of interactive theatre. These sessions provide the women with an opportunity to let go of negative emotions and inner turmoil.

Health and hygiene. High illiteracy rates means that women lack unawareness of basic, yet crucial, health and hygiene issues precautions to be taken in poor living conditions. Prior to the escalation of the conflict, these women were able to rely on a widely accessible and freely available health system. 

However, the near collapse of the health sector in Syria means that a vital link in their lives is now missing. Local organisations are stepping in to fill this gap by providing direct services in clinics or medical facilities, as well as by ensuring women are well informed on basic hygiene, potential risks and the availability of professional healthcare assistance. 

Without the involvement of women, the impact of raising awareness on epidemics (polio, measles, leishmaniasis, cholera etc.) would be minimal at best. Women are responsible for food preparation and provision, the sanitary health issues of females and the care of children in the household. Offering women greater knowledge on health and hygiene empowers them to create hygienic environments for their children, notwithstanding the crumbling public health system.

Women as leaders. Although the development of events has led to a shift in gendered roles in society, it has not been a total overhaul. In areas where conservative forces have gained control, women's independence has been severly curtailed.

With the exception of a few, women by and large have not taken up arms in the conflict, yet they have borne the brunt of the war physically, psychologically and materially. 

The significance of women in resisting the logic of war that at present threatens to engulf Syria is undeniable. Women who have been engaged in humanitarian efforts in one way or another should be active participants in any possible re-initiation of a peace process. Their commitment to surviving the war in a non-violent manner sets them apart as advocates for an inclusive society. 

You can read the shortened version of this article in September's edition of Forced Migration Review.

Zerene Haddad
Jesuit Refugee Service, Middle East and North Africa

Countries Related to this Region
Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey