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Female Unemployment Still High in Syria

Women in Syria still represent a small fraction of the overall workforce, although the numbers have been rising slowly in recent years.

A survey published late last year by the government’s central statistical agency showed that only around 14 per cent of women of working age – defined as those aged between 15 and 65 – had jobs in 2007. They accounted for around 16 per cent of the total workforce.

The official survey revealed that about half of women in employment work in the public sector, one-fifth are engaged in agriculture, another 20 per cent work in services and sales, and seven per cent have jobs in industry, mainly in textile production. The remainder work in real estate, finance and the transport sector.

The study also showed that women have far fewer technical skills than their male peers.

Social affairs experts blame the low employment rates in part on public attitudes, which are generally not in favour of women going out to work instead of staying at home as housewives.

“There are many problems facing women who want to enter the job market, including education and tradition,” said Akram al-Qash, professor of sociology at the university of Damascus.

Nevertheless, the figures also show that more and more married women are working to augment their household income these days. The number of women who are the main breadwinners for their families has increased to 11 per cent, compared with ten per cent in 1994, according to the survey.

“Women are increasingly taking a leading role in the family after they get a divorce, or when their husband passes away,” said Bassam al-Qadhi, director of Syria Women Watch, a Damascus-based website.

He noted that when women find themselves in these situations, it is less common than before for them to return to their parents’ homes.

Raghda al-Ahmed, deputy head of the Syrian Women’s General Union, attributes these new patterns more to economic pressures created by rising living costs than to a sea-change in attitudes.

At the same time, growing numbers of women are obtaining university degrees, according to said Reem al-Jabi of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP. Official figures indicate that almost half of Syrian women go on to higher education.

Although more and more women are entering the labour force, most still get jobs that are secure rather than ones that demand technical skills. The single biggest employer is the public sector, where education, health and public services offer more stability in terms of hours and conditions.

By contrast, only a quarter of men now work in the public sector, according to the survey.

“Working for the government protects women,” said Basima al-Khouri, a leading member of the Syrian Women’s General Union. “They are not made to work at night or in physically demanding jobs.”

They also get family benefits and other rights that are not always offered by private employers, she added.

Gender experts say equality laws are respected in the public sector, whereas many private employers discriminate against women in the pay and job types they offer them.

Some would argue that by working in low-ranking administrative jobs in the public sector, women are constrained from seeking more challenging opportunities.

“Working for the government… does not give women an opportunity to improve [their lives] and does not help them achieve their ambitions,” said Alaa Turki, a 27-year-old woman who heads a department at a private bank in Damascus.

In recent years, there have been a number of government and private initiatives to encourage women to become more entrepreneurial. In December, for example, the government in conjunction with UNDP held workshops across the country to train women to start up and manage their own small businesses.

Women account for more than 60 per cent of the beneficiaries from a public fund set up to develop new economic projects. In 2007, the government created a different fund to help women in the farming sector to set up commercial ventures to sell their products.

Some believe that more needs to be done to integrate women into economic life.

Al-Ahmed of the women’s union said there was a need for more access to capital and loans at low cost.

“Some women in Syria have reached decision-making positions in politics and in the corporate world, but the numbers are still very low and significantly below expectations,” she said.

According to Torfa Kahil, an activist working for the Women of Syria website, “What women in Syria want is real equality with men and an equal chance to access the job market.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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