Syria’s women are increasingly taking on the role of primary breadwinner in their families as husbands and fathers are killed, injured or detained. For many of these women, this is their first experience in the formal job market.
Historically, women’s increased participation in production, trade and entrepreneurship has proven to be an important contributing factor to the success of economies emerging from conflict, according to a 2015 UN Women report “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice and Securing the Peace.”
This is in part due to the fact that women are more likely than men, according to the report, to spend their income on family needs, such as healthcare and education, thereby making a significant contribution to post-conflict social recovery. Economic empowerment furthermore enables women to engage in civil society activities.
“When women are economically empowered, they are in better positions to take on political roles in their communities and for instance to play a leadership role in mediation and conflict resolution within or between communities,” says Aneesa Walji, a policy specialist at UN Women who specializes in gender inclusive peace processes.
Increased women’s participation in the job market, if sustained, could play a significant role in Syria’s future.
Over the past week, Syria Direct has been exploring different roles that women are taking on in working for peace both internationally and inside Syria. In this fifth and final installment, we interview three women: a farmer, a journalist and a laborer. By taking an active part in the workforce, they are transforming their communities and hopefully laying the foundation for peace.
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Farmland in the Daraa countryside in May 2016. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty.
Fatima Umm Firas, 39 years old, farmer in the east Daraa countryside town of Ghasm
Even before Fatima Umm Firas’ husband was killed in 2013, the family was struggling to make ends meet. He suffered from cancer and the family had been depending fully on a monthly retirement benefit that he received by the government. After losing this income, Umm Firas saw no other option than to start her own agricultural business in order to provide for herself and her three school-aged children.
Q: What made you start working in agriculture?
I had to start farming after my husband was killed by regime forces five years ago. He was the sole breadwinner. After he died, I couldn’t provide for the basic needs of my children, such as school-related expenses like stationary and notebooks.
I had to ask people I knew for financial assistance more than once. This was one of the hardest challenges for me, because I am not used to asking anyone [for help].
The only solution was for me to [start] farming and selling vegetables. My older brother provided me with a modest sum, SP15,000 (approximately $30) to help me get started. As an initial experiment, I planted a very limited amount of okra, cucumbers and tomatoes, and only earned a very small profit.
I was afraid to fail, afraid that the money I spent on seeds would go to waste, that I wouldn’t be able to sell my produce. So when I first started farming [in early 2014], my mind was constantly occupied with a fear of failure. But my first attempt at planting was successful and the harvest turned out okay.
Q: Have you faced challenges during this work?
I faced a lot of difficulties, especially at first.
It was hard for me to sell my crops. Every day after harvesting, I would go to the shops and markets in the village, but my goods would be rejected. The shop owners had suppliers, and those who agreed to buy them wanted to pay any price that suited them. This broke my heart, after months of exhaustion.
One of my relatives helped me after he saw how I went to grocer after grocer without selling my crops properly. He put great effort into selling my harvest by sending special requests to people he knew, and took me on his motorcycle to sell my crops in neighboring villages.
Getting hold of seeds to sow was another problem. Most seeds are available here, but at a high price. I ordered seeds from the buses traveling between Daraa and Suwayda, and would sometimes wait up to ten days before they arrive. This is also very costly because of the price of the seeds themselves, transportation and the cost of getting the seeds across the military checkpoints between the two provinces.
Farming requires a continuous effort, I would spend seven hours a day watering the plants, removing the weeds and spreading fertilizer. I [was not] used to work that requires a big [physical] effort. This was the first time I worked in farming, so at first I would put maximal effort into the work only to get a tiny output.
Q: How do people in your community react to your work?
People see me as a hardworking woman who is enduring difficult circumstances. I am committed to my home, my work and the education of my children. I didn’t turn to any people or organizations to care for me and my children, but instead worked from my home to make a living.
Noura al-Basha, 29 years, journalist in Suwayda
Noura al-Basha had always dreamt of studying journalism, and as she grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of credible news coverage in her home province of government-held Suwayda, she decided to invest her time in learning the profession. Today she works as a freelance journalist, reporting for various news outlets.
Q: What motivated you to become a journalist?
The main reason [I started] was the media blackout in Suwayda, after many [media] activists left Syria. Some media outlets tried to weaken Suwayda’s voice in order to serve their own [political] orientation, and regime media presented an altered picture of reality, trying to make the province appear loyal to the regime. I felt I had to report the reality in Suwayda. And this was how I started.
I started working as a journalist about four years ago. Before that, I reported events in an arbitrary way, conveying the news without relying on [principles] of journalistic writing or doing the investigation needed [to ensure] credibility. I learned journalistic work with the help of a great journalist, Rawad Mustafa, the previous director of Baladi News Network. I worked at Baladi News under his direct supervision, and he would sit for hours, teaching me journalistic writing, reporting, article structure and so on.
A market in the Idlib province town of Kafr Nubl. Photo courtesy of Kafr Nabl News Network.
Q: How did your friends and family react when you started working as a journalist?
I found a lot of support from my family. They would encourage me and say: ‘You’re doing something important, and we’re proud of you.’ That really motivated me to keep going.
My father and brother especially gave me a lot of freedom and stood by me in many situations, providing me with moral support.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges or points of frustration for you, working as a journalist in Suwayda?
The biggest challenges I have faced are the inability to move around freely and the fear of arrest due to the regime’s persecution of opposition media.
My frustration comes from my inability to change the current reality, as well as from direct exposure to news of killings, blood and [the suffering of] children. But despite all of the difficulties, the fear and the moments of frustration and despair, this has been one of the most important experiences in my life.
Q: Did you face any challenges specifically related to being a woman?
I’m from a small village in the Suwayda countryside where everybody knows everyone else. So, as in any other eastern society, women here face certain limitations. Being a woman living within these norms and traditions has made me work in a specific sphere: I have to take this into consideration, so I can’t move around all times of the day to cover [the news] and report the events directly.
Being arrested would mean a disaster from the point of view of society. I [therefore] have to move around with great caution so that I don’t expose the surrounding [community] to any problems because of me.
I wouldn’t describe these as difficulties, but rather small hindrances.
Q: In your opinion how did the war affect work opportunities for women in Suwayda?
Suwayda’s women have become the partners of men in all aspects of life. While 15 years ago women’s role was limited to raising children and tending the home, they recently began to enter the workforces alongside men in most fields, even those that were not previously permissible.
Dalal Najjar, 22 years, laborer in Kafr Nubl, Idlib
Ever since her husband was paralyzed in a 2014 motorcycle accident, Dalal Najjar, formerly a housewife, has worked odd jobs in Idlib to provide for him and her three-year-old son. At age 22, the physical strain of the jobs has already taken a toll on her body.
Q: Can you tell us about how you started your work?
In the motorcycle accident, my husband cracked his head, broke his shoulder, lost his hearing and was paralyzed in half of his body. It has been three years now, and he is still being treated.
[After he was injured,] I went out to look for work. I harvested crops, then started working filling trailers with sheep manure for farming and fertilizing trees. I also collected gravel, which is used to fill in foundations for building construction.
I used to work in a kindergarten, which gave me an income, but when the salary stopped I was forced into other jobs. [Ed.: Najjar used to work at a kindergarten run by the non-profit organization Mazaya. Mazaya’s founder told Syria Direct in a previous interview that the organization is struggling to secure funding.]
Q: How has it been for you to work these jobs?
It’s okay, but it’s very hard. Currently I have reduced my workload a bit because of a slipped disc, which resulted from the work I’m doing. I am supporting my husband and son, but am paying for it with physical pain.
Even so, it’s enough for me to know that whenever my household needs something I can get it. I’ve started to feel important at home and amongst other people. This has caused my mental state to change, and given me a sense of self-worth.
Q: How has your community reacted to the work you do?
If God hadn’t fated for my husband to be injured, he would not have let me work. I used to tell my husband, before the accident, that I wanted to take sewing and nursing courses, but he did not accept that. He said that a woman’s place is only at home.
I have faced a lot of criticism from people who see me going out and working, even though they know the difficult circumstances I’m in. They say this isn’t my job, and that I should find somebody to provide for us. But how could I leave my son hungry, without any milk? And how could I leave my husband, who sometimes has seizures, without providing him with his medicine?
People’s talk doesn’t affect me. I am responsible for my household and my family needs a provider.
Q: How do you think your situation would be if there was no war?
I don’t think I’d be doing this work if not for the war. Before the war, my situation would have been better, since people had better lives and were able to support those in need. If there was someone helping me, I wouldn’t have run around day and night trying to support my family. But right now, the situation is very difficult. Everyone is hardly able to take care of their own families.