Gender, disability and displacement: Reflections from research on Syrian refugees in Jordan

May 24, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

This guest post is by Bushra Rehman, a Research Officer with the Humanitarian Academy for Development, which is the research and training arm of Islamic Relief Worldwide. The post is based on her prize-winning Masters dissertation.

It is mid-afternoon in Jordan and the weather is stiflingly hot. I arrive at a derelict building in Irbid, a city located 20 km south of the Syrian border, where I’m introduced to a Syrian refugee. She welcomes me into her apartment. Upon entering her home, I’m introduced to her sister, Dina (not her real name), a young woman whose life was transformed when she was paralysed by a gunshot wound.  With a waning sense of optimism, she describes how her life changed from being a woman, like thousands of other Syrian women, to an even more disenfranchised member of society: female, disabled and displaced.

8 months later, I’m back in Jordan, at a grim tower block building in Amman, a city known for its mountainous terrain and multi-storey residential buildings, which are acutely inaccessible for people with mobility impairments. I’m introduced to a 60 year old Syrian refugee, who welcomes me into her fourth storey home. There’s no lift so I climb up the stairs, with some difficulty, to her apartment where I’m introduced to her children – three daughters and three sons, all of whom have physical and intellectual impairments. A range of environmental barriers in their local community, such as steep hills and staircases, restrict their capacity to move around, to easily access humanitarian services, to form communal relationships and as such, reinforce the sense of isolation that refugees are already facing.

These are but two examples; I am privileged to have met many Syrian refugees, of all abilities and ages, and to have had the briefest of glimpses into their journeys. These interactions showed how pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as those associated with gender, disability and displacementoften combine to deepen poverty in refugee settings. The female disabled refugees I spoke to clearly expressed how they felt secluded, dependent and lacked opportunities to access education or livelihoods in Jordan.

These women face discrimination not only because of the negative social attitudes and stigma attached to disability, but also because of the pernicious inequalities associated with being a woman, adding further susceptibility to violence and discrimination which inhibits their access to education, work, community spaces and activities. At the same time, they felt as though the “de-gendering” effects of disability prevented them from fulfilling socially-important gender roles, such as being a mother or a wife. Indeed, historically, disabled women have been subjected to cultural stereotypes which view them as asexual, unfit to reproduce and dependent.

I vividly remember a female Syrian refugee with paraplegia complaining that her marital prospects were extremely limited compared to her brother, with the same condition. In a culture where the prospect for marriage carries monumental value, she felt a great sense of deprivation. In addition to this, the insecurity associated with escaping conflict and finding herself in a new environment as a refugee with weak support structures and limited access to resources  added to her disadvantage. This means that she – and other disabled female refugees like her – are discriminated against on several grounds simultaneously, causing what is often referred to as a “triple burden”: being a refugee, being a woman and being disabled. 

At first glance, it would seem that disabled male refugees would be at least slightly better off than their female counterparts. However, I quickly learnt that the intersection between disability and gender has a unique impact on men, as well as women, in refugee settings. For example, an aid worker in Jordan described a case to me in which a Syrian man suffering from psychological trauma complained that his “manhood had been eroded” after a barrel bombing caused permanent injuries to his genitals and legs. Being unable to conform to culturally-mandated notions of masculinity has an incalculable effect on the self-esteem and vulnerability of Syrian men, further intensified by notions of refugees as “weak” and “dependent”. In addition, I’ve spoken to male refugees who say that the widespread perception that only disabled female refugees are vulnerable left them invisible to aid agencies – abandoned by the humanitarian system. It’s important to emphasise that the intersection of gender, disability and displacement can have a marginalising impact on both men and women.

Ultimately, all this suggests that if we are sincerely committed to ‘Leaving No One Behind’, it is imperative that we understand the diversity of experiences of the most vulnerable groups in society. We must also appreciate that when applying an intersectionality lens to our work on a practical level, we must recognise that the relationship between disability, gender and displacement is complex, multifaceted and the ways in which power is distributed can change across contexts and situations. Humanitarian actors must, therefore, step away from narrow definitions of gender, disability and displacement and work towards more rigorously planned humanitarian responses that appreciate each aspect of human difference.

Nevertheless, even though ‘intersectionality’ cautions us against reductionism, we must be careful not to treat all disabled male and disabled female refugees as passive victims with no sense of agency. Within the same demographic, individual experiences differ: Dua, a Syrian refugee told me that after escaping Syria and facing complications that affected her mobility, she made a conscious decision to change her life by volunteering with local NGOs that support other disabled Syrian refugees in Jordan:

“One of the most debilitating effects of disability is people misjudging me. But when they see that I’m active and making a difference, their opinion changes”.

Dua taught me about more than just the importance of intersections between gender, disability and displacement. She taught me about the need to highlight personal narratives that avoid inadvertently stripping away individuality and history. She taught me about the importance of having meaningful relationships with refugees, rather than patronising and superficial ones. And she taught me that every refugee, regardless of age, ability and gender, has stories that are vivid, elaborate and complex, populated with struggles and victories. I returned dazzled by the wisdom and strength of disabled refugees in their struggle to forge a better future, despite all the barriers that society places in their path.

Further Reading: See this new ICAI review of DFID’s approach to disability