Gendering self-reliance: constructing the ideal refugee wo/man within livelihoods support for displaced Syrians in Turkey
McAteer Türkmenoğlu, Boel
My thesis sets out to explore how self-reliance is gendered within global refugee support. It contributes to scholarship on refugee self-reliance by pointing to gendered components of the concept itself, and analysing it within the specific operational context of Syrians under temporary protection in Izmir, western Turkey. It reveals that individual workers within inter- and non-governmental organisations conceptually re-construct self-reliance during the implementation process of livelihoods support, which has implications for how self-reliance is understood as well as how refugees themselves are constructed. Self-reliance has become increasingly relevant within the Syrian refugee response in Turkey in recent years, as the international community strives to prevent asylum migration to Europe. This is particularly visible in Izmir, where a number of inter- and non-governmental organisations (I/NGOs) have established livelihoods support programmes for the Syrian population since it has become much more difficult for displaced persons to leave Izmir for Europe. This work builds on 22 qualitative interviews with staff and volunteers from ten inter- and non-governmental organisations working in central Izmir, including grassroots initiatives; larger NGOs with international funding; and intergovernmental organisations with an overseeing role across Turkey. The subjective viewpoints of interviewees have been weighed against documents from the organisations where they work, including public reports, social media pages and internal programme documentation, and analysed thematically. The data analysis is structured around three concepts used to unpack self-reliance, each of which has its own literature and development agenda: sustainability; women’s economic empowerment; and decent work. Sustainability captures the timeframes within self-reliance, which are often contested. Women’s economic empowerment captures the specific role of women’s paid employment as a development solution to displacement. Finally, decent work captures the psychosocial aspects of labour that are often assumed to be a part of self-reliance, and questions the lack of attention paid to labour conditions and meaningful work within livelihoods support. My research asks how each of these three concepts is operationalised within the specific context of livelihoods support for the displaced Syrian population in Izmir, and how staff and volunteers implementing this support navigate dilemmas they come across in relation to these concepts. It demonstrates that sustainability, women’s economic empowerment, and decent work are in effect re-defined through implementation, as I/NGO workers turn them into narrower and more implementable versions of the original concepts. Sustainability is understood to equate paid employment in the local economy, which is much more accessible to men than it is to women. Women’s economic empowerment is re-defined as individual preferences, which leads to livelihoods support being implemented as small scale income generation initiatives that are not concerned with sustainability. As such, women are expected to work towards a different version of self-reliance compared to men, where their own individual self-sufficiency is not prioritised. Decent work is implemented in two versions; one for men, which is concerned with creating formal employment understood to be both meaningful and rewarding with guaranteed good labour conditions. As women do not have the same access to paid employment, they are instead expected to find meaning in the social aspects of livelihoods support in the informal economy, and contribute to the well-being of others in this way. This points towards a version of self-reliance that is highly gendered, which also contributes to a construction of the ideal refugee man and woman that is deeply rooted in gendered constructs. Firstly, viewing paid employment within the local economy as the most sustainable option for displaced Syrians constructs this as the ideal way for refugees to behave. Despite the many problems with the jobs provided, Syrian men are expected to prefer them over other income generating activities. Secondly, viewing income generation for women as empowering based on women’s personal preferences, often for part-time work, constructs a different ideal for refugee women, where they are equally expected to earn money for their families, but without the prospect of individual self-sufficiency. Finally, viewing decent work as formality and income generation for Syrian men creates an ideal refugee man who is not supposed to be concerned with work being personally rewarding to himself, as long as he can earn money to support himself and his family. The ideal woman, on the other hand, should not be concerned with economic self-sufficiency, but be happy to work on behalf of the greater good of her community and family. These constructs are problematic in several ways. They create an ideal that is impossible to achieve for both Syrian men and women, since jobs that will render them self-sufficient are not actually available to them in Turkey, which is also the case for many other displaced populations around the world. If support is conditioned on behaving like jobs are still a good solution, this encourages refugees to take jobs that are exploitative and precarious. Further, this ideal is built on gender stereotypes that encourage refugees to behave in ways that reinforce their perceived social positions and gendered divisions of labour, for example by encouraging men to be breadwinners and women to be responsible for unpaid care work. This creates exclusion for those who do not conform to the expected roles and behaviours, and serves to reinforce gendered structures that cause inequality. Finally, this ideal promotes paid labour in neighbouring (often poor) countries as a solution to displacement, in a way that prioritises market benefits over the welfare of people. This creates further risks of exploitation and poverty for those displaced, caused by precarious labour. It also contributes to the continued de-valuation of unpaid labour as equally valuable and meaningful work, which further contributes to gender inequality.