When violence broke out in Syria in 2011, Ghasak al-Ali was a high school student. Now, at just 27, she is the breadwinner for 11 members of her family – something that would have been almost unthinkable before the war.
A decade of conflict is evolving traditional values towards gender roles as death, injury, emigration and disappearance into President Bashar al-Assad’s notorious jails have deprived tens of thousands of families of their male earners.
Women are being thrust into the role of the provider in a way few had experienced previously.
Al-Ali, who is from Saraqeb in rural Idlib, the country’s last rebel-held province, had to find work when she was 23 after her father broke his back and could no longer continue his employment. As the oldest of her siblings, she had to take responsibility for the family, earning from humanitarian work and later, as she built up her skills, from journalism.
“I know many women who have found themselves as breadwinners for their families and this has caused their status to change dramatically. They are no longer housewives, but hard-working women,” she said via a message from Idlib.
“The harsh conditions we lived through have completely changed the role of women and men’s view of the need for women to work.”
According to a report by global poverty and hunger charity Care, only 4 percent of Syrian families were headed by women before 2011. That figure has now risen to 22 percent.
Severe economic troubles and not enough food for people to eat are propelling even more women into looking for work, with families struggling to cope with a 236 percent food price increase in 2020 alone, according to figures from the World Food Program (WFP). The United Nations says 60 percent of the population struggles to find enough food each day.
Women are disproportionately affected by food scarcity, according to Care, having less access to formal jobs and fewer work skills, and those in work often have to also shoulder care-giving responsibilities at home. The benefits of economically empowering women, however, “extend far beyond financial well-being”.
“Women who are economically empowered are also more likely to be empowered in their households and communities, more able to participate in decision-making. This reduces women’s risk of exploitation, marginalisation and vulnerability and leads to long-term changes in social norms and economic structures that benefit entire communities,” the report said.
Changing long-held and deep-set societal norms, however, can be hard work for those leading the charge.
“The pressures of earning a living are huge – I was a student who took money from my father and now I am someone responsible for securing the lives of my family members. I am frustrated by difficulties in getting jobs, in moving between cities, and in society’s view towards me working,” said al-Ali.
“I encounter challenges, especially at checkpoints as the only female on my team. I have to take my brother with me for permission to pass through, and he has to show documents to prove he is my brother.”
The number of people killed during 10 years of fighting in Syria is not known, but UK-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights estimates it is between 387,000 and 593,000. Almost seven million people have been internally displaced, 40 percent of whom have fled their homes at least three times, and 5.6 million have gone overseas, mostly to nearby Turkey and Lebanon.
Those who stayed are now faced with a collapsing currency and the fallout from the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, as well as US sanctions on the Assad regime. On Tuesday, the Syrian pound hit its lowest black-market rate against the dollar, according to the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, and is now worth 99 percent less than before the war.
Adding further pressure, many families now risk losing their homes after a new legal amendment brought in by the cash-strapped government means those who did not do military service before the age of 43 must pay $8,000 or lose their property.
A continued boom in women joining the workforce could contribute to the economy and help protect their households from economic shocks and stresses. However, Ghalia al-Rahal, co-founder of Mazaya Centre for Women in northwest Syria, said women still suffer from a lack of representation in decision-making roles, meaning creating meaningful change is hard going.
“There is no female body for women to communicate their demands and opinions on issues related to women – such as harassment, violence and exploitation – and issues of public concern that have implications for women, which limits the capacity for positive change,” she said.
“The reduced number of men means women are now responsible for supporting their family and taking care of their needs, perhaps also caring for an injured husband, while society also exerts authority over her and restricts her behaviour.”
The Mazaya Centre works to empower women, educate them about their health and arm them with potential work skills such as first aid, IT and literacy.
Al-Rahal said Syrian women who did not complete formal education are now taking on manual professions, such as selling on stalls, making sweets, weaving, sewing, and working in agricultural lands or small factories. Those with education tend to work in civil society organisations or become business owners.
“During the last round of displacements [amid the regime offensive to retake Idlib in 2019-2020], many women learned to drive and have acquired the ability to coordinate work both inside and outside the home,” she said.
“Women were among the first to demand freedom at the beginning of the revolution. They were deliberately marginalised under the control of armed factions who did not give them representation, but they continued to struggle through their civil work activity.”
In the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, World War I pushed women into agriculture and production roles and it became a defining period for women’s equality. Could Syria’s war have a similar long-term legacy for its women?
“We have noticed real change in the level of awareness of women’s rights,” said Noura Abdel Karim, a project coordinator at the Maram Foundation, which helps vulnerable people in Syria.
“There are challenges facing working women in a cultural, social and ideological context regarding mixing with men and how that affects family relations. However, many men are recognising women’s abilities and appreciate the economic empowerment, especially husbands who have been left disabled.”
For al-Ali, working has given her a maturity and an understanding of life that she may not have developed otherwise.
“I gained a lot of experience and learned many skills. I turned from a shy girl to a working woman who has many friendships and knows many people, which took me out of the isolation I previously lived in,” she said.
“I want my daughters in the future to have an important role in society.”