Empowering Refugee Women to End Extreme Poverty


SEATTLE, Washington — Today, 50% of the world’s refugees are women and girls, but these women often have unequal access to education and employment. Yet, women refugees’ economic potential can be tremendous. Moreover, enabling women refugees access to further employment and education opportunities can reduce extreme poverty and food insecurity. This article explores the gap between women and men refugees’ access to job and education opportunities and how greater opportunities for women can improve local and national economies. Additionally, women are already suited to take the lead in poverty reduction efforts in certain spheres, including the agricultural sector and small businesses. Multilateral organizations like the United Nations and other on-the-ground advocacy organizations are leading efforts to empower women and encourage a global response. However, further action is needed to empower refugee women to end extreme poverty.

The Refugee Gender Gap

More than 70 million refugees are displaced globally, who face barriers to a better quality of life. However, women refugees face more significant obstacles due to social-economic and gender barriers. These challenges usually result in gender-based violence and societal and ethnicity-based inequalities. According to the 2019 United Nations Security Council, one out of every five women refugees is a victim of sexual violence. Moreover, child marriages are still prevalent among countries, destabilizing countries’ economies. In fact, nine out of 10 countries with the highest number of child marriages have poor peace and economic stability.

Additionally, young refugee girls lack greater access to education compared to refugee boys. At the secondary school level, boys were twice as likely to enroll in school than girls, even though girls make up 50% of refugee youth. Often, girls cannot attend school because, based on societal norms, they must tend to domestic duties, such as caring for family members and gathering food and water.

In many communities worldwide, educating girls is not highly valued, especially in societies where child marriage is prevalent. Strict regulations from religious groups can also prevent girls from receiving an education. According to data from U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), if all girls completed secondary school, the rate of child marriages would fall by more than 60%. This opportunity is especially crucial for refugee girls because education is essential in ending extreme poverty.

Refugee women also have unequal participation in paid jobs compared to men. Within the refugee population, only four out of 10 women have paid employment, compared to seven out of 10 men.

Possible Improvements in GDP

Although refugee girls and women face many challenges in receiving education and employment opportunities than refugee men, it is also essential to consider the economic value women bring to fragile countries, especially as women comprise 50% of the refugee population. In countries where many refugees reside, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, empowering refugee women could result in high GDP growth. As a result of women empowerment and a rise in local economics, refugees can improve their quality of life and living conditions.

A study done by the International Refugee Committee on refugee women’s economic prospects concluded that empowered, educated and employed women refugees could raise the global GDP by more than $50 billion. This increase in GDP would contribute to improved living standards and lead to peace and security in countries where conflict is high. The potential increase in GDP further displays the benefits of empowering refugee women to end extreme poverty.

How Refugee Women Can Lead Poverty Reduction Efforts

In addition to the potential increase in GDP, refugee women’s placement in certain informal sectors enables them to lead poverty reduction efforts, such as their involvement in the agriculture sector. In less-developed nations, women comprise 45% of the agriculture workforce, and refugee women are largely part of this community.

Once empowered, refugee women can bring in income for themselves and their families while learning more about business and leading the community in ensuring food security. For example, The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) worked with Syrian and Turkish refugees in three cities in Turkey, allowing women to lead business-related decisions for growing and selling food. Additionally, the collaboration resulted in women in Izmir, Turkey, owning production and distribution businesses of stuffed mussels, a popular regional food. The group of women sold more than 1000 pounds of mussels per week.

Refugee women can also use their unique skills to build small businesses that bring in income and improve the quality of life in lesser developed nations. For example, in Lebanon, a U.N. project for greater gender equality impacted more than 1,000 refugee women and taught them to create handmade items and agri-food consumer products. This led to establishing a brand called MENNA, which sells handmade products in Lebanon made by refugee women.

Besides improving local economies and supporting food and income security efforts, empowered women refugees can also better integrate into host countries. This improves refugees’ cultural contexts and allows refugee women to use their unique skills for poverty-reduction efforts. Empowering refugee women to end extreme poverty will also enable developing nations to progress closer to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the fifth goal calling for greater gender equality.

Looking Forward

Global cooperation is paramount to realize the tremendous economic gains that refugee women can bring. Progress was made when 164 countries adopted the Global Compact on Refugees, which calls for global responsibility and a more robust, coordinated response to displaced refugees and migrant communities.

Countries must continue to implement policies that reduce discrimination and barriers that prevent refugee women from entering the job market and improving girls’ educational opportunities. Empowering refugee women to end extreme poverty is vital to improve economic conditions in several countries, increase the quality of life for displaced communities and end extreme poverty.

—Anita Durairaj
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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