The Future Is Now: Investing in the Recovery and Resilience of Syrian Women and Their Communities

The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people. 

I used to be a housewife in the past, a mother, and a lady in my community, but then I became like a cactus, hard with thorns on the outside due to enduring hardships and coping with the unstable life circumstances and atmosphere. Without a doubt, the responsibilities were a heavy burden and changed the old me. It may be a result of my husband’s illness, displacements, or the fear of the unknown future for me and my family. All of this forced me to gain maturity fast, so I lost my femininity and became hard as a rock, emotionally. My circumstances imposed this change, and I had no choice in it. Holding on to hope is what helps me keep going. – Woman, 35, Refugee in Turkey from Aleppo (edited for clarity)

In conflict settings, aid programming designed to foster resilience and early recovery is a critical bridge between essential but limited emergency response and the sustainable, long-term rehabilitation of sectors critical to a healthy and sustainable life. Programs that foster forward momentum in a context of constant shocks and regressions also nurture hope.

Ten years into the conflict in Syria, however, funding that would allow short-term programs to have longer-term impacts continue to be vastly underfunded. In 2019, the Early Recovery and Livelihoods sector was just 15.7 percent funded. This shortcoming is compounded by ongoing fighting, displacement, and humanitarian needs that continue to require urgent aid responses on short notice and with insufficient resources. As a result, the scarce funds provided for recovery programming often get reallocated to meet those immediate, lifesaving needs. CARE and other aid organizations are placed in a position where unsustainable response modalities, such as delivery of food baskets, continue to be the only option to assist Syrian civilians. Funding shortfalls for both emergency and recovery work have created a vicious cycle.

In this context, punishing economic conditions, along with the death, injury, disappearance, and displacement of Syrian husbands and fathers, have precipitated a major social change: women have been forced to adapt their roles within traditional family structures. In addition to their roles as caregivers, Syrian women have entered the workforce in much greater numbers, often working in the informal sector doing jobs previously held by men, which carry increased risk and fewer protections. Women are becoming primarily responsible for the resilience of their families and communities in all aspects of their lives and have also gained new decision-making power, confidence, and independence along the way.

These new circumstances have put me in the position of being both mother and father for my children, and this applies to most women in my community. The current situation has led to “women’s empowerment” and perceptions that we are now more equal to men, but the reality is that we took on the role of both males and females simultaneously. Now we do both. – Woman, 35, Raqqa, Displaced (edited for clarity)

The emerging role of women as breadwinners has meant that the overall shortage of funding for humanitarian assistance and failure to support essential, multiyear resilience and recovery initiatives have a disproportionately negative impact on women. It affects the ability for families to access the basic necessities of survival and jeopardizes the fragile yet potentially transformational changes in the authority and independence of women within their communities.

Donor hesitancy to fund any activity that could be perceived as reconstruction support, as well as bureaucratic limitations and unclear policies, are compromising the well-being of Syrian communities, hobbling early recovery efforts, and increasing the risk borne by aid agencies trying to work more sustainably. In northwest Syria, large-scale displacement persists, yet donor reticence to invest in sustainable projects hinders access to basic necessities and effectively limits impact to the immediate term. In contrast, greater and longer-term investments in early recovery today could vastly increase community resilience and aid independence for years or even decades.

At present, donors will allow for small-scale recovery projects in conjunction with programs to improve livelihoods, but the impact is small in scope. Where CARE now provides multiple individual beneficiaries with a single solar panel to improve family income, a small solar farm could power a community; where CARE invests in cleaning aging irrigation canals, the rehabilitation of entire irrigation systems could support even more farmers and boost long-term food security; and where CARE partners need to repeatedly repair a dilapidated storage silo year after year, investing in a new silo would cost less and serve the community for years. The current approach requires more time, more funds, and greater effort to serve fewer needs for a shorter time span. Regardless of the response context, this sort of financial and opportunity cost—particularly when directed by policy—should not be considered good humanitarian donorship.

Investing in individuals by providing small business grants, vocational training, and skills-building is critical, particularly for women, but the effects of these efforts could be further multiplied by building up markets and creating sustainable power generation that would serve businesses and communities. Investments in small-scale agriculture—also primarily the remit of Syrian women—could create food security for many thousands more and be continued into the future if these inputs were linked to investments in irrigation restoration and the construction of sound agricultural storage facilities. Increased assistance to frontline women’s organizations is also essential to effectively meet humanitarian and recovery needs and ensure the voices of those most affected by the crisis have a say in the response. Yet an assessment of progress toward the collective humanitarian goal of increasing funding to women’s groups to 4 percent by 2020 showed that nearly all donors, including the United States, fell short.

The conflict in Syria has been long and brutal, and the end is not yet in sight. Reorienting U.S. policy on assistance for Syria to effectively and comprehensively meet Syrians’ needs—including by increasing funds for recovery, particularly for women-led recovery—could rapidly transform the projects that are saving lives and building family resilience today into drivers of self-reliance and hope for the future.

Dr. Ihlas Altinci is a sexual and reproductive health advisor for CARE in Gaziantep, Turkey. Dhabie Brown is a humanitarian policy advocate for CARE in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Ihlas Altinci

Sexual and Reproductive Health Advisor, CARE

Dhabie Brown

Humanitarian Policy Advocate, CARE