Widows Struggle to Overcome Poverty and Discrimination
(Idlib) Life for Lamya 1 has been difficult. At 22 years old, she is the mother of two and a widow. Due to the harsh circumstances of life, extreme poverty, and a lack of options, she has chosen to get remarried.
The war in Syria, which has gone on for more than five years, has destroyed a number of couples, leaving behind many widows. As a result, many Syrian women have become breadwinners of their families. As breadwinners, they have faced not only job insecurity and instability, but archaic customs and traditions that prevent women from job seeking.
“My world completely changed after my husband was killed in August 2013; he did not leave me any source of income or even a house for us to live in. This left me homeless, going between my parents’ house and his parents’ house for two years,” said Lamya, who for the sake of her children, Raʼd (5) and Muhammad (3), endured harassment from both parties.
It has been difficult for Lamya to find a job: she does not have a formal education or any professional skill and her parents are against her leaving the house for work. As such, she agreed to the first suitor she had, a young man belonging to an Islamist militia, even before he agreed to take care of her children.
This marriage allowed Lamya to put an end to her and her children’s suffering, misery and homelessness, even if it meant she was to be a second wife. She justified this decision saying: “I need a man to help me raise my sons. It is better to marry him than to stay at my parents’ and my late husband’s parents’ houses, serving them without a word of gratitude.”
Lamya’s story is not unique and resembles the story of many other women in the Idlib countryside. However, not all widows have surrendered to their harsh reality. Suhayla, age 35, from Kafranbel was able to go against the conservative norms and the difficult circumstances she found herself in after her husband died in Asad’s prisons. She learned how to sew and tailor at Mazaya Center, a women’s education center.
Suhayla told SyriaUntold: “I did not give into despair because I was sure that if I did not do anything, nobody would help me or my children.” In addition to helping her provide for her family, this career also empowered her to use her creativity and helped her develop business acumen, following the demand and supply of the market.
And yet Suhayla’s path was not by any means easy. She faced pressure from her family and her community, preventing her from going to the Mazaya Center to learn, saying it was a duty of her husband’s family to provide for her and her children. Suhayla persevered and challenged them, saying: “Those who cannot help me shall not stand in my way, because I know what I am doing is not shameful or forbidden.”
The difficulty for Suhayla was to be viewed by relatives with pity when they would help her, but her new financial independence allows her now to no longer feel like a burden.Wage Inequality
The women working in Idlib countryside, especially the widows, are exploited for their labor, and subject to inequalities in pay, even though the men do not produce more than they do.
Suʻad al-Musa (30) stated that, in agriculture, women earn 200 Syrian Pounds (SYP) per hour (roughly $0.36 on the black market) while men earn double, at 400 SYP (US$0.72). “This is a huge injustice against women, but we are compelled to work, so we accept any wage no matter how negligible,” she told SyriaUntold.
Umm Muhammad, in her forties, works to make dried figs. Her work day is eight hours long, and she is paid 800 SYP ($1.45) every day, except for Friday. She commented: “Despite the low wages and the difficult work, I am satisfied with my job, especially as I see many widows who are in need of a job and are unable to find it in these circumstances.”
Raghidah (32) has not had good luck either. She is also a widow, and has three children, one of whom is handicapped. She works in a private clinic as a nurse and is paid 15,000 SYP per month (US$27.27). She works from eight in the morning until noon, logging patient names, acting as an office administrator, and cleaning the office at the end of her day. “The amount that I make is simply not enough to pay for bread and some vegetables. My son Ahmad  works in a carwash to help us cover our daily expenses,” Raghidah said, with a sigh.Psychological and Material Barriers
These widows and women who are newcomers to the workforce also have had to battle psychological barriers. According to Fatin as-Suwayd, a psychologist and social worker, these women are under alarming pressure. Not only is working new to them, but they also face social stigmas and obstacles to their entry into the workforce. “These women need psychological preparation, time, and qualifications to meet the many demands of their life. They need material and moral support to believe in themselves and be effective,” she said, bringing up the fact that many of the women feel confused and anxious, and oftentimes feel shame at working outside of their house and leaving their children alone. “Being a housewife, nanny, and breadwinner at the same time is not easy,” added as-Suwayd.
According to the latest census carried out by the Local Council of Kafranbel in 2016, there are more than 4,000 widows in the city of 35,000, 13,000 of whom are women. With regards to the support they receive from local institutions, Council member Abu Muhammad (45) explained: “The pain and suffering experienced by those widows is the result of the regime’s crimes and the repercussions of war. We would love to be able to help them secure decent work, but unfortunately all the Council can do with its limited abilities is to provide monthly food baskets.”
At a time when mothers do not have adequate access to fulfill the needs of their children, widows persevere in their fight against traditions and overbearing community surveillance, to be the new breadwinners of their families.
[Main photo: Women and children take part in one of the activities organized by the Mazaya Center – Kafranbel – Idlib – 30-10-2016 (Mazaya Center Facebook page)].
- Apart from Fatin as-Suwayd, all the names used are pseudonyms for security reasons. ↩