With increasing intensity of mass and protracted displacement around the world, refugee and forced migration studies emerged as a scholarly field in the 1980s. Feminist research has criticized the scarcity of research, which takes gender into account as an analytical lens in the context of forced migration in general. As indicated by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, the mid-1980s and early-1990s coincided with the discovery of “Women in Forced Migration” (WIFM) approach. Rather than giving a voice to gendered experiences of displacement, early WIFM literature referred to refugee women as non-agentic victims (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2014). Thanks to increasing research on the subject, there has been a gradual transition from the “add women and stir approaches” to the “Gender and Forced Migration” (GAFM) perspective. The latter looks at the gendered causes of forced migration and gendered processes of legal recognition, as well as the gendered experiences of forced migration in and outside camps (Indra, 1999).
As Türkiye became the highest refugee recipient country in the world in the aftermath of the Syrian war; research on this new population in Türkiye has increased exponentially. Note that Türkiye still applies the geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and so does not grant refugee status to those in need of international protection, originating from non-European countries. Syrians in Türkiye, that we refer to as refugees in this article, following the international standards, were initially settled in camps in the South-East region bordering Syria and were called ‘guests’, a non-existent category in international law. As of October 2014, the Regulation on Temporary Protection (RTP) issued by the Ministry of Interior, based on Article 91 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) enacted in 2013, specified the terms of registration and stay in Türkiye without determining the length of protection. Currently, an overwhelming majority of Syrians in Türkiye live in urban areas and are under temporary protection.
Following the critiques in the international literature, studies in the Turkish context also highlighted the lack of gender perspective in explaining the reasons, experiences and outcomes of forced displacement (Kıvılcım, 2016). We agree with the critique that a gender-based perspective on forced migration is only slowly emerging in the analysis of the refugee population in Türkiye (see Biehl and Danış, 2020). Our overview also reveals that gender segregated data on several domains and a gendered perspective in existing research is still scarce. This blog post surveys available data on the situation of refugee women in Türkiye and compares it to the situation in pre-war Syria. Syrian refugee women in Türkiye come from a society where gender-based inequalities in access to education and the labour market prevail, and are currently living in Turkish society where these gender-based inequalities are an important axis of social stratification. Based on secondary resources, the blog post juxtaposes the data available on the situation in pre-war Syria, the Syrian population in Türkiye and the host population. This blog post highlights points of concerns for policy makers as well as areas where there is a need for more research. It also suggests further readings, a list of key texts and newly published research on the subject.
According to the statistics provided by Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), the number of Syrian people under temporary protection in Türkiye was 3,426,786 in 2017 and this number was recorded as 3,576,344 in 2020. The official data gives us the total number of female and male Syrian population under temporary protection within different age groups. Together with newly registered Syrians, children born in Türkiye reveal an increasing trend in the number of people under temporary protection despite a slight decrease since 2018. According to the data provided in 2020, the Syrian population between the ages of 0-18 is composed of 1,652,377 people, therefore representing 46.3% of the Syrian population. It was declared that the number of Syrian new born girls between the ages of 0-4 was 231,766 and 248,518 for boys between these ages, making a total of 480.284 new born Syrians.
According to official statistics, the Syrian population consists of 1,654,116 women and 1,922,228 men. However, research on the marriages between Syrian and Turkish citizens conducted in 2016 states that 32% of Syrian refugee women living outside of the camp areas are not registered in Türkiye (Ministry of Labour, Social Services and Family, 2016). The latest official population data reveals that in all age groups between 0-54 years old, the number of males is higher than females while the gap between the male-female population is the highest in ages between 19-24. The population between the ages of 19-24 totals 503,942, 286,456 men and 217,486 women respectively. As the age increases, the population gap between the male and female population decreases. Indeed, the number of Syrian women in Türkiye above the age of 54 exceeds the number of Syrian men in this age group. These statistics highlight the problem of elderly care, which is traditionally assigned as the duty of younger women in the family. Elderly single women are widely associated with high levels of poverty. The difference between male and female populations among the youth can be attributed to unregistered female populations and to young Syrian men moving out to generate income for the members of the family staying in the country of origin. The discrepancy between male and female populations will not only have implications for marriage patterns among the Syrian community but also between Syrian and Turkish communities, and for the number of female headed households in Syria.
One pressing question for researchers and policy makers alike is to reveal the impact of displacement on gender selective access to education. Available statistics reveal that the gender gap in access to education was shrinking in pre-war Syria. According to the World Bank data published in 2004, the literacy rates among the female population and male population over 15 years of age in Syria are 74% and 88% respectively (World Bank, 2004). Accordingly, when the age group between 15 and 24 is considered, literacy rates rise and the gap between the female and male population decreases significantly.
A review of available data suggests that gender-based discrepancy in terms of access to education has increased again as an effect of displacement. In the 2016/17 academic year, more than 15,000 Syrians were enrolled in Turkish universities (Hohberger, 2018). Accordingly, approximately 35% of the Syrian students at Turkish universities are women, while 65% are men (Hohberger, 2018). In contrast, in pre-war Syria half of the students were female. Similarly, the overall gender gap in higher education in Türkiye is much smaller. There are several factors which can affect this gap between female and male participation rates in higher education among the refugee population. Families may prefer allocating resources on their sons rather than their daughters with the idea that girls can marry at an early age and would not contribute to the household livelihood. As a result, displacement negatively affects young women’s access to higher education at a greater level than young men.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at the end of 2018, within the school-aged children who are under temporary protection in Türkiye, 40% of them remain out of school (UNICEF, 2018a). Obstacles to compulsory education are also gendered and child marriage is an example of these obstacles. In the article released by United Nations Population Fund, child marriage is explained as a coping mechanism of families in relation to their economic problems (Zerzan, 2018). Families are engaging in child labour and child marriage practices instead of sending their children to school because of the economic burden on their shoulders (UNICEF, 2018b). The expectation to generate income by joining the labour market seems to be the main factor keeping children out of school, and it has led to an increase in child labour, not only among the refugee community but also within poorer segments of the population regardless of refugee status. In cases of child labour, gender roles affect the type of labour expected from the children. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat), out of 15,247,000 children aged between 6 and 17, 893,000 children were involved in an economic activity with a rate of 5.9% in 2012. In 2019, 720,000 children out of 16,547,000 children aged between 5 and 17 work in an economic activity (TurkStat, 2020). While in 2012 agriculture is the main employment area of children (industry the second and service sector third), in 2019 service sector become the main employment area, the second is agriculture and the third is industry (TurkStat, 2013; TurkStat, 2020). Approximately, 31.2% of all employed children are female in 2012 and it is 29.4% in 2019. The percentage of children who are employed and continue to education among employed children increases throughout 7 years. While in 2012, 50.2% of employed children are dropped out of school, the percentage is 34.3% in 2019. However, the main general critique to the 2019 Results of Child Labour Force Survey gathered by the ministry is suggesting that it doesn’t include Syrian refugee children in the dataset meaning that the results might be comprehensive of the overall child labour situation in the country.
Female employment among the refugee population is especially low. A study by the World Bank indicates that the employment rate for Syrian women aged between 30-44 is 7% (del Carpio et al., 2018). Syrian women are largely absent from the formal labour market in Türkiye. According to the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Security, in 2018 the total number of work permits given to Syrian nationals was 34,573 while only 3,047 of these work permits were given to Syrian women (Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Security, 2018). Research estimates that at least half of the over 2 million working age Syrians in Türkiye work informally and include mostly men (Carpio et al., 2018). A recent report by Bahçeşehir University Economic and Social Research Center (BETAM) suggests that 48.2% of Syrian youth between the ages of 18-29 are unemployed (IYF & BETAM, 2018). Moreover, within the employed population, only 2.2% of them have work permits. Meanwhile, 3 out of 4 Syrian women earn less than the minimum wage and on average, Syrian women earn less than 20% of Syrian men. When the male population is considered, trade, textile and garment industry are the three sectors, which provide most of the employment opportunities for Syrians.
Gendered division of labour, such as men specializing in paid employment and women specializing in unpaid family work is commonly accepted and valued among Syrian refugees (Knappert et al., 2017). This is correlated with pre-conflict statistics demonstrating that female labour force participation was around 16% in Syria in 2005, as opposed to 23% in Türkiye (World Bank, 2019a). Note that as of 2019, female labour force participation rate in Türkiye is around 38% (World Bank, 2019b). As a result of structural and cultural factors conducive to low female labour force participation in the home country, Syrian women in Türkiye did not have work experience, specialized training and social capital upon arrival. As emphasized by the refugees themselves, the normative principle that women should not work outside their homes plays a significant role on women’s experiences as refugees in the host country. According to the research undertaken by the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) and UN Women, most of the female population among the displaced reported that they are employed in the informal sector. When the data is analyzed according to marriage status, the rate of employment among the divorced and unmarried population is higher than the married or widowed population (Yücel, 2018). When their caring duties at home allow, women refugees engage in home-based work, which has the lowest status in the informal economy. Gender inequality both among the host community and the refugee community made refugee women dependent on others, such as their family or their husband. Along with cultural explanations, existing surveys indicated that one of the most important barriers faced in the labour market is language. For women, improvements in language acquisition through language training is more difficult because women are traditionally responsible for childcare, as well as need the permission of their husbands to join language courses.
Despite barriers for women’s participation in the formal labour market and their very precarious presence in the informal labour market, there are grassroot initiatives aimed towards the economic and social empowerment of displaced Syrian women. Initiatives such as Kadın Kadına Mülteci Mutfağı (Women Refugee Kitchen), which gather migrant women in a kitchen to cook and sell their local dishes based on orders, and Göçmen Kadınlar (Migrant Women) who settled in Istanbul and sell their handcrafted items online are some examples of these small scale initiatives among others aiming at women’s empowerment. Albeit small in scale, these initiatives aim to combine integration, social cohesion and the generation of livelihoods through a participatory approach.
In 2018 there were 553,202 legal marriages in Türkiye (TurkStat, 2018). Among these recorded marriages, the number of foreign brides was 22,743 representing 4.1% of total marriages. When the nationalities of brides are considered, it is seen that Syrian brides represent 15.7% of total foreign marriages (TurkStat, 2018). On the other hand, in 2018 the number of foreign grooms was 4,119 representing 0.7% of total marriages. Syrian grooms represented 13.1% of total foreign grooms. Therefore, it was more common among Syrian females than Syrian males to marry a Turkish citizen. However, this data demonstrates only legal marriages, and it can be stated that marriages -especially between Syrian females and the Turkish male population- will be an important social factor in the upcoming years. Considering that the population of Syrian men outnumbers Syrian women, we can predict that the marriage age within the Syrian male population and rate of marriages with a Turkish citizen will increase.
The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency under the Ministry of Interior (AFAD) released a Field Survey on Demographic View, Living Conditions and Future Expectations of Syrians in Türkiye in 2017, which reveals many insights. When the distribution of Syrian refugees according to their affinity to the head of the household is analyzed, patriarchal relations in the household can be examined. Data suggests that among camps and non-camp settings, Syrian males were the heads of 82.5% of the households while female refugees represented the head in only 17.5% of the households (AFAD, 2017). Moreover, the marital status of Syrian refugees is observed in the survey both in camp and non-camp settings. In general, 53% of the Syrian refugee population are single, 0.5% are divorced and 43.7% are married. When analyzed by gender; in camp settings, 54.8% of the female population in camps are single while 64.9% of the male population residing in camps are single (AFAD, 2017). In non-camp settings, on the other hand, the percentage of single males is 54.8 while the percentage of single females is 52.5 (AFAD, 2017). As expected, marriage percentages of male refugees increase outside the camp areas.
According to the research undertaken by the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policy, population growth rates before the war in Syria is two times higher than the Turkish rate, and the reason for that is the birth rate (Ministry of Labour, Social Services and Family, 2016). In 2010, the birth rate in Syria was 42.2 per thousand while the rate in Türkiye was 17.1 per thousand (Ministry of Labour, Social Services and Family, 2016).). Marriage and divorce statistics in 2010 suggest that in Syria the marriage rate was 11 per thousand, while in Türkiye the rate was 7.9 per thousand. Marriage rates had increased since 2005 in Syria, while in Türkiye they had decreased. Remarkably, divorce rates in both countries were similar in 2010, at 1.5 per thousand. While fertility rate in Syria was 3.3, it was 2.1 in Türkiye (World Bank, 2011). As observed in the camps, displacement experiences led to an increase in divorce rates and a decrease in marriage rates among the Syrian population. The interviews we conducted with Syrian women in the camps also revealed that relations among partners have been jeopardized because of economic and social hardships that they are going through, and many couples have come close to getting a divorce while in Türkiye.
The lack of existing official data on the age of marriage and early marriage is worth mentioning. While the report by the Ministry does not include insights regarding first marriage age and the age of childbearing, it is emphasized that marriage under the age of 18 is legal in Syria. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) dataset, between 2006 and 2017, 13% of Syrian girls under the age of 18 were married. In Türkiye, marriages below 18 years old were recorded as 8% of the total married population between 2006 and 2011 (Ministry of Labour, Social Services and Family, 2016). However, the data released by UNFPA states that 15% of girls in Türkiye married under the age of 18 between 2006 and 2017, and 1% of girls were married by the age of 15. Moreover, 23% of total marriages in 2010 involved brides aged up to 19, and 0.02% of these marriages involved grooms aged up to 19 in Türkiye (UNFPA, 2014). To compare Türkiye and pre-war Syria, the data released by UNICEF points out that 14.7% of women aged between 20 and 24 in Türkiye (in 2013) were married before the age of 18, whereas this rate was 13.3% in Syria (in 2006) (UNICEF, 2006; UNICEF, 2013).
On the one hand, child marriage has been a common issue for both countries. On the other hand, the effect of displacement on child marriages needs to be investigated. Child marriages are common among Syrian populations and may reflect a continuation of cultural practices in post-displacement life. At the same time, as mentioned above, families going through economic hardship may resort to marrying off their daughters, who are seen as economic burdens for the households, at younger ages.
A gender-based reading of available data reveals that vulnerabilities characterizing the Syrian women refugee population in Türkiye stem from ongoing gender-based inequalities in pre-conflict and post-conflict Syria, and structural and gender-based inequalities of the host society.
The need for gender segregated data and gender-based research is clear, as evidenced by the limited amount of existing research. An overview of the Forced Migration Resource Center (FMRC), which is an online resource center and database gathered by the Migration Research Center at Koç University (MiReKoç), identifies 1786 different resources related to the forced migration of the Syrian population to Türkiye. However, only 82 resources focus on gender and women. Within these resources, health conditions and the health care of women is the most common research topic. Employment and marriage are the least examined topics in Syrian refugees’ case. Different reviews in other contexts also reveal the need for a gender-based research agenda (Lokot, 2018). Lack of available gender-segregated data in relation to the labour market, marriage and divorce patterns appears to be one of the main obstacles for designing evidence based and gender aware social cohesion and integration policies. The gender variable is missing in already scarce data on refugee populations. More research that takes gender into account not only as a variable but also as a relational and intersectional category with age, ethnicity, social class, marital status (in the sense of being single / married / partnered – with or without family) and sexual orientation among others is needed.
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 Child marriage is defined by UNPFA as “a marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old”
 Although research and news on queer migration are rare, there are resources, which focus on migration from a queer perspective (see Kara and Çalık, 2016).