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International calls for innovation to support women refugees who want to work

Written by Abigail Hunt


The second week of the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicks off today at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, continuing its special focus on women’s economic empowerment in a changing world of work.

Women’s rights organisations, gender experts, international institutions and governments are discussing the significant barriers to quality, paid work for women around the world and how to dismantle them. When it comes to refugee women in particular, innovations in mobile technology could hold the key – though this comes with its own risks.

Women refugees face barriers to paid work

We know that women want to work. In fact, a new global report from the International Labour Organization finds that 70% of women and 66% of men prefer that women work. This is true for most countries, even where employment rates for women are traditionally low, such as Arab states.

Improving job prospects for all women is a hot topic at CSW. One group most at risk of being left behind is women refugees, who face some of the toughest barriers to finding a job or earning a living.

This month marks six years since the start of the conflict in Syria – and peace still seems a long way off. The war has forced 11 million people to flee to surrounding countries. Jordan houses 657,000 Syrian refugees and 3 million refugees in total. Nearly 1 in 10 people in a country of 8 million are now refugees, just over half of whom are women and girls. Even these startling figures are likely a gross underestimation, as they don’t include Jordan’s many unregistered refugees.

Women refugees in Jordan tell the same story as others around the world – they are willing and ready to work. Yet, only 6% of women refugees in Jordan are economically active.

This is due to a lack of economic opportunities, difficulties obtaining work permits, limited mobility, not having local contacts or networks, and being unable to access timely and reliable information on available opportunities. Gendered barriers are particularly high, including restrictive social norms and perceptions about women’s role in the family and workplace, a lack of good, accessible childcare, and fears of harassment when travelling and working.

Solutions must consider gendered barriers

Supporting Jordan’s women refugees who want to work is an increasingly urgent task, as many are likely to remain in the country for years to come. With this aim, last year the government and donors agreed the Jordan Compact, which includes a range of commitments to support refugee livelihoods.

Yet they have made slow progress on implementing the Compact, and haven’t considered the specific barriers women face. For example, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) set up in remote locations won’t do much to provide quality job opportunities for women if those women can’t afford to travel there, or won’t make the journey due to safety fears or lack of childcare.

Can mobile technology help?

Despite the progress made – at least on paper – with the agreement of the Compact, we need new solutions. Indeed at CSW last week, Jordan’s permanent representative to the UN Sima Bahous spoke of the ‘growing need for innovation in dealing with the huge refugee influx into Jordan’, including ‘livelihoods support in all kinds of income generation and entrepreneurial activities’.

Embracing innovation and exploring new options may provide one answer. As CSW recognises, the world of work is changing. So can new ways of organising work overcome barriers and provide economic opportunities to women refugees?

ODI is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to explore the potential of a new way of working that could improve refugee women’s access to work – the gig economy (the use of mobile technology to link workers with purchasers of their services). Through gig economy platforms like Uber, workers can sell services via their phones without needing an extended network of personal contacts.

Some gig economy work can also be carried out online, which may suit refugee women who are unable to move freely due to an unfamiliar environment, cultural barriers, and unaffordable or unsafe transport.

The gig economy isn’t perfect – women face a range of gendered challenges accessing it due to digital and financial divides, and working conditions can be poor. But the protracted refugee crisis means that new solutions are urgently needed. In many countries, including Jordan, the gig economy is just emerging, meaning it’s not too late to make sure it evolves to the benefit of all involved.