Gender and displacement: What’s it like to be a female Syrian refugee in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq


Syrian female refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq face increased discrimination, inequality and risks of violence and exploitation exacerbated by shifting gender roles and responsibilities in displacement.

Through interviews with over 500 hundred Syrian female refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, UN Women’s new report Unpacking gendered realities in displacement: the status of Syrian refugee women in Iraq examines how displacement has affected Syrian female refugees in Kurdistan and how the interplay of systemic gender discrimination, poverty and instability increase their vulnerability and isolation. Fifty-seven percent of women said that they now had a larger decision-making role than before displacement. While women in the study demonstrated agency and did not see themselves as victims, they were vocal about the negative impact that displacement has had on their lives and families. They did not view increased responsibility as a decision they have made themselves, but as critical for the survival of their families.

Women stressed the importance of receiving assistance in a clear and consistent manner. They also reported that current levels of financial assistance are not sufficient to reduce their reliance on negative coping mechanisms. Economic insecurity was cited as the primary concern for 82% of the women in the study. Despite the physical limitations and threats of violence, many women expressed a strong desire to contribute to household income through paid work. While 78% of the women interviewed had a Kurdish residency permit, which also allows them to work legally, only 4% of women reported that they had access to any type of work. Despite their willingness and legal ability to work, employment remains elusive, forcing many to turn to informal and inconsistent work.

Moreover, many felt that displacement has increased violence against women, primarily in the private sphere. One fifth of the women said that gender-based violence has increased since the start of the Syria crisis. This has negatively impacted their mobility due to the actual and perceived risks of violence.

The increased stress of displacement, and especially the inability of many women to meet their basic living needs, has led to increased mental and psychological issues. Women generally expressed their desire for psychosocial support that could help them deal with their lives in displacement and the increasing tensions both in the household and larger community.

“Better protection for themselves and their families and access to work and livelihood were articulated by the women we spoke to as the foundation for their empowerment and equality.” Said Mohammad Naciri, Regional Director of UN Women for the Arab States. “In the absence of this, women and girls will continue to be forced to make decisions and compromises that put themselves at risk and limit their choices and opportunities.” 

To alleviate the hardships of displacement on Syrian female refugees in Kurdistan and empower them, the report has made the following recommendations:

  1. Ensure that gender mainstreaming in humanitarian and resilience programming prioritizes women and girls’ empowerment and access to services;
  1. Increase access to employment services and financial resources for female Syrian refugees, actively targeting refugee women for livelihoods programming;
  1. Support interactive, safe spaces for female Syrian refugees to meet, network and socialize. These centers should enhance reporting of gender-based violence and provide quality psychosocial support services;
  1. Ensure information sharing and awareness raising on available services, pairing approaches that utilize technology with those that are based on word of mouth;
  1. Promote accountability for violence against women and support the judicial system to investigate and prosecute cases of violence against women within the refugee community;
  1. Recognize the positive correlation between the strength of women’s movements and organizations and gender-equal societies and invest in women-led organizations as key drivers of short-term and long-term social equality.