Women in Syria: Staying, supporting & surviving

More than five years into the war in Syria, half of the Syrian population have left their homes seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and Europe or becoming internally displaced inside their own country.

But Syria is not empty. Some 13.5 million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian aid. One of every four Syrians is now poor because of the war. The war has put women at the forefront to provide for their families.

Meet the mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters who are keeping daily life together inside Syria.

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December 2015 in Al-Hassekeh, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Syria has a Mediterranean climate and is a part of the Fertile Crescent. Before the war, it was one of the world’s top producers of tomatoes, cotton and olives. Agriculture employed millions and accounted for 21 percent of GDP. However, the war has limited farmers’ access to their lands and destroyed the country’s infrastructure.

Immediate livelihoods solutions could depend on Syria’s farmers and agricultural workers — predominantly women now — who are the bedrock of the country’s food supply.

Syria’s women farmers are working to grow enough produce to sustain the most vulnerable population in their regions.

Milk and eggs from their dairy farms and chicken farms are vital during wartime when every little bit of protein and calcium count for better nutrition and to stave off hunger.

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Preparing Labneh (yogurt) and cheese in Tartous, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

From the farm: With UNDP support, small businesses are processing dairy products, such as this factory, which transforms milk into Labneh (yogurt) and cheeses.

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Cheese makers at work in Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

“The job was a savior. I was able to master cheese making in a short period of time. The income helps me to provide daily for my four children, especially for their school needs.”

Waeed, a 34-year-old woman who found work at a cheese making shop after taking a UNDP dairy production workshop. Waeed, originally from Idleb, fled to Hama when ISIS raided the city in 2014.

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Sun-dried eggplants on rooftops in Hama. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

“I used to work at a local grocery store but also helped with farming and construction. When we became displaced, we mainly depended on food baskets from humanitarian aid charities and money from relatives. This job changed my life. There are not enough words to describe how happy I am to wake up every morning knowing that I have a stable job and that my family will no longer need to worry about food or shelter.”

- Wesaal, a UNDP project participant currently displaced in Hama

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Workers peeling and sorting summer harvest for drying and preserving in Hama, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Syria’s electrical infrastructure has been deeply weakened by relentless war. Without refrigeration or steady power, food often requires traditional preservation methods. During the harvest, rooftops across cities are adorned with summer eggplant, peppers and other produce drying in the sun.

“I’ve been working in this food production workshop for about a year now. I am now earning enough now to provide for my family,” — Soumia, Hama.

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Workers packing sun-dried peas at a food production workshop in Hama, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

In many food production centres across Syria, women work to sort, dry, pickle and preserve the harvest for cold winter months ahead.

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Packing dried lentils & peas from harvest in Tartous, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

“My son was very happy when he saw his new school uniform that I bought from my first wage, and he was finally very excited to go to school. His smile is everything I am looking for.”

Lina is a 32-year-old mother who became the breadwinner for her family after the death of her husband.

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Packing jars of fruit jam on a rooftop in Hama, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Rana and her family of eight fled Rastan to escape Al-Nusra Front. Barely past her teens, this breadwinner makes strawberry, peach and apricot jams to support her mother and siblings.

In Syrian kitchens, like in many throughout the world, matrons are the gatekeepers of culinary knowledge, guarding centuries-old family recipes. Food is identity. Grandmothers are now handing over culinary lore and heritage to younger women. Displaced women are also introducing their regional food culture to communities hosting them, to better express their identity and integrate into the communities.

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Makdous (stuffed eggplant pickled in olive oil) in Homs, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

In the city of Tartous, many displaced women, finding themselves in a new city and in an unfamiliar role as bread winner, are taking culinary cooking courses to keep traditional dishes alive.

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Cooking classes in Tartous, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Before the war, the government subsidized grains for bread. When the war began, flour was one of the first food staples to disappear from markets, putting many bakeries out of work.

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Photo credit: UNDP Syria

“My husband used to own a bakery in Deir ez-Zor. We were forced to sell everything we owned to survive, until nothing was left for us. Last year, my daughter died of Tuberculosis due to lack of medicine. Then my husband died while attempting to leave Syria. At the age of 40, I found myself alone with my four children with no source of income.”

Through a UNDP project supporting small food businesses, Rehab is baking traditional Syrian bread again and gaining enough to maintain a decent life.

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Sanitation workers sorting waste in Tartous, Syria. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

War often brings a spike in sanitation-related and waterborne diseases. Sanitation and trash removal services have collapsed or are over-strained in some cities. Many women are working in pest control and sanitation to stop the spread of diseases.

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Volunteers getting ready to clean streets in Al-Hassakeh. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Syria’s young people often volunteer planting trees, picking up garbage and spraying organic pesticides to prevent the spread of disease.

Out of necessity, Syria’s first female plumbers have emerged.

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Aisha and her plumber’s toolbox. Photo credit: UNDP Syria

Aisha, her husband and their five children fled the siege in Aleppo. She trained with UNDP to become a plumber because the couple couldn’t get by on one income. Plumbing puts bread on the table, but Aisha is most proud of being able to repair pipes to bring safe, clean water to families.

Plumbing isn’t the only unconventional career Syrian women are exploring. Farah is a carpenter at a UNDP woodshop in Hama. With her ornately carved furnishings, she aims to keep Syrian heritage alive.

Energy and fuel prices have skyrocketed due to war. Ghosoun works at a UNDP briquette production centre in Tartous, transforming organic waste into affordable fuel briquettes for stoves and heating.

“I’m glad my briquettes will keep people warm,” Ghosoun says.

Farmers are prioritizing food crops. Without cotton, many Syrians like Sanaa are getting creative, re-purposing old fabrics to make new clothes and bedding to keep people warm.

To bring people together, Syrian women have played a major role in promoting a culture of peace within communities. Women are using photography, music, sports and other social activities to spread positive attitudes and spirit of tolerance, acceptance and engagement in the middle of violence, hatred and despair.

After the death of her husband, Sawsan started taking photography classes with UNDP at a community center in Tartous. She says the classes boosted her confidence as she became more involved in community activities.

Women are taking responsibility for their personal security by learning how to protect themselves and be more vigilant in a violent atmosphere. Boxing at a self-defense class in a UNDP-supported community center is one of many ways that Syrian women are connecting and forming networks to cope emotionally during wartime.

Authors: Lamia Dib, Manal Fouani and Lei Phyu from UNDP with photos and interviews gathered by UNDP Syria inside Syria.

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Transforming our world #By2030. Visit us at www.undp.org

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