Women's power in the Middle East

Syrian Women engaging in civil society organizations in Lebanon

ZEF-doctoral student Dima Al-Munajed is currently conducting her field research in Beirut, Lebanon. The topic of her doctoral research is about understanding how Syrian women in Istanbul, Turkey and Beirut, Lebanon are currently involved in civil society organizations after they took refuge to these neighbouring countries as a consequence of the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

A particular focus of her research is on how the engagement of Syrian women has changed after the war within an active and expanding civil society sector that grew as a response to the humanitarian crisis that occurred. Most of the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) under study are local or Syrian CSOs working in areas of social and economic development, such as providing psycho-social support, education for children and women, health and employment opportunities. However, in Beirut some Syrian CSOs are also working on raising awareness on democracy, civil society, citizenship, and providing capacity building for local CSOs.

From November 21 -26, 2018 Dima’s supervisor Professor Eva Youkhana visited her in Beirut in order to touch base with particular CSOs there and with the women working in them. “Borderless” is an example of such a CSOs created in Lebanon in 2015 after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and the influx of an estimated one million Syrian refugees into the country. It is located in the Ouzai area on the outskirts of Beirut, an informal settlement housing large numbers of low-income Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian families. The initiative is led by two women, Randa Ajami a Lebanese national and Lina Attar Ajami, a Syrian national, who wanted to get Syrian children from poor families off the streets and out of child labour. Developing activities to include the mothers as well, the NGO now acts as a community centre (borderlessngo.org) where mothers can develop new skills while their children learn. Psychosocial support is also provided to children and mothers suffering from trauma by volunteer social workers and psychologists.  Today, Borderless provides informal education classes to 150 children that are excluded from formal education in Lebanon. For adults, Borderless currently has 30 women and men enrolled in an Adult Illiteracy program, and 20 women in its ‘Stitching Hope’ workshop which teaches women sewing skills.

First observations indicate increasing Syria-related activities by Civil Society Organizations

Research observations made so far point to a growth in Syria-related CSO activities carried out in Lebanon and Turkey. This growth was fostered by funding from international NGOs, and in the case of Lebanon by national policies that purposefully left the issue of dealing with Syrian refugees mainly to the NGO sector. International donor conditions have made Syrian women and children the primary beneficiaries of local CSO efforts. Their conditions have also placed pressure on local CSOs in Lebanon and Turkey to involve more women as staff within these CSOs. However, it is still unclear whether or not this increased involvement of Syrian women as beneficiaries and actors within CSOs translates to genuine participation in decision-making within them, especially at higher levels.  It is also unclear if these new CSOs in Lebanon and Turkey will survive in light of cuts in international donor funding which is currently redirecting itself to projects inside Syria.

Authors: Dima Al Munajed (junior researcher at ZEF) and Eva Youkhana (Supervisor)

About Dima Al-Munajed:
Being a Syrian woman herself, Dima Al-Munajed started her field research on “The engagement of Syrian women in civil society organizations in Turkey and Lebanon” with a DAAD scholarship in Fall 2018. Dima was born in the United Arab Emirates, and lived there until she moved to Lebanon to study Political Science at the American University of Beirut. After graduating, she worked as a researcher with The Syria Trust for Development, a local NGO in Damascus Syria, and completed her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development. While working in Syria, she witnessed the revival of the CSO sector driven by national policy at the time. After being forced to leave because of the war, Dima continued working with NGOs on a voluntary basis making use of her own experience. During her field research she reflects on her own positionality on a daily basis.