The Syrian conflict has resulted in approximately a million people fleeing to Lebanon – equivalent to nearly 25 per cent of the Lebanese population of 4.2 million.  Despite the efforts of the Lebanese authorities, generous Lebanese citizens, UN agencies, and international and national aid organizations, the situation is still creating intense levels of stress for refugees, as in many cases they are forced to take on new roles and responsibilities that are often at odds with their traditional gendered social roles.

In order to understand these changing gender roles, MENA Agenda 1325’s partner organization in Lebanon, ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality and Oxfam International have carried out a gender situation and vulnerability assessment among Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees from Syria now living in Lebanon.

The study showed that both men and women refugees are experiencing severe stress and feelings of powerlessness because they are unable to fulfil their traditional gender roles. According to a health worker in Tripoli many “men here are unemployed and they sit all day at home, they feel a bit depressed, mad, and they release their anger towards their family and children.”

Moreover, Syrian men feel guilty that they are not in Syria fighting for their people, which adds to their sense of low-self-worth, stress and powerlessness. The man who used to be provider and protector of the family and the nation now finds himself unemployed and unable to fulfil his traditional role. Sadly, in some cases, this frustration results in domestic violence “When my wife asks me for vegetables or meat to prepare food, I hit her. She does not know why she was hit, neither do I.”

A father in his 60s cannot find a job in Lebanon and therefore the young men in the family (14-18) go out to find work in order to pay the food, bills and the rent. This is a huge change in the traditional family structure where the father is the head of the family and this cause tension in the family. In addition, this hinders young men to continue their education.

Women feel their gender identity is on Shaky Ground

Likewise, women and girls feel they have lost their gendered identity since they no longer have access to the resources and services they used to have in Syria before the conflict begun. They are now obliged to work outside the home, they cannot cook proper food anymore or dress nicely. One woman explained how “the first thing is that our womanhood has disappeared,” and “Women are now both a woman and a man. There is no femininity anymore, it has gone!”.

Although many women feel that they have lost their female identity, others felt that taking on a different role also created a sense of empowerment. A number of women expressed a sense of empowerment due to their new role outside the home: “She told me that right after she started working, she feels stronger than her husband, in a way that she is a woman of her words, she can give her opinion and it matters, she makes decisions and they are always taken the way they are said, she can go out. On the other hand, back in Syria, she could not do anything of what’s already mentioned.”

Moreover, many girls continue to go to school, whereas, as aforementioned, the young men (14-18) have to work to provide for the family. However, some families, who are struggling financially, see child marriage as a coping strategy. In one focus group with girls, participants reported of a case where a 15-year-old girl had married an older man so that he would help support her family; this was described as common practice by a focus group of boys and girls in the Bekaa Valley.

Despite the fact that many families fled Syria because they feared for their lives, yet for many,  feel that their safety and security remain under threat while residing in Lebanon. Despite generous assistance from most Lebanese communities, many respondents reported experiencing xenophobia, discrimination and hostility. Especially women feel unsafe and afraid of being harassed by Lebanese men. Widows and single women are even more vulnerable and one participant from the Middle Bekaa described how she publicly faked calls from her husband — pretending to still be in touch with him to avoid being harassed.

What is next?

The assessment conducted by ABAAD and Oxfam concludes with detailed recommendations for development and humanitarian practitioners and donor agencies, to help them design and implement gender-sensitive programming that addresses these shifting gender roles and helps to minimize stress and tensions among refugee populations and between refugee and host communities.

You can download the full study pertaining to the recommendations here: Shifting Sands: Changing gender roles among refugees in Lebanon.