The business of empowering women: Insights for development programming in Syria

Authored by: Center for Operational Analysis and Research

Categories: Human Rights, Statebuilding
Sub-Categories: Economic Participation, Sexual and Reproductive Health
Country: Syria
Region: Middle East and North Africa
Year: 2020
Citation: “The Business of Empowering Women: Insights for Development Programming in Syria.” Center for Operational Analysis and Research, June 2020.

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Executive Summary

This paper highlights several overarching challenges to the empowerment paradigm. Most importantly, this research shows that women’s participation in economic activities does not equate to empowerment on a more holistic or ultimately meaningful basis. At best, an approach that correlates economic opportunity with women’s empowerment is tenuous. At worst, it is blind to the myriad factors that shape women’s choices, and it ignores the complex nature of empowerment itself. Moreover, this paper contends that the prevailing conceptualizations and methods of quantifying empowerment are often ambiguous and divorced from context. As a result, they fail to address the many dimensions of women’s empowerment that are equally critical, but exist beyond easily measured economic factors. Ultimately, these shortcomings arise not only because of flawed or partial conceptualizations of women’s empowerment, but also because of institutional factors, including resistance that is entrenched at the organizational level.

This paper is based on extensive desk research and numerous, wide-ranging interviews both with Syrian women engaged in economic activities and with international response professionals focusing on Syria. Although many of the conclusions of this research are drawn specifically from the Syrian context, they are by no means limited to Syria. On the contrary, these conclusions are relevant in any context in which gender-responsive or women’s empowerment initiatives are needed — which is to say, universally. Of note, this research does not specifically assess the design or implementation of any particular donor-funded women’s empowerment initiative in Syria. Rather, this research seeks to show the contextual realities of the broader operational environment in which donor-funded women’s empowerment initiatives in Syria are undertaken. Above all, this research seeks to cast light on the inherent limitations of gender-responsive programming that either focuses exclusively on women as beneficiaries or which treats access to economic resources as the core activity of empowerment initiatives. Instead, this paper argues that a holistic, community-based approach is needed in order to grapple with the real complexity of social norms and traditional roles and responsibilities that continue to dictate women’s relationship to work, their social surroundings, and their sense of self-worth and well-being more broadly.