• A new study from the International Rescue Committee uncovers what economic empowerment means to refugee women in Germany, Kenya, and Niger.

  • Lack of childcare, harassment and gender-based violence, prioritizing men’s workforce integration, social stigma, and limited autonomy in decision-making cited as top constraints to economic participation.

  • As the Beijing Platform for Action celebrates its 25th anniversary, refugee women remain under or unemployed in greater numbers than other populations.

New research from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which sought to understand the ways in which refugee women themselves define economic empowerment, finds that lack of access to adequate child care is one of the top barriers faced by participants. The in-depth qualitative study with 110 interviewees across Germany, Kenya, and Niger, all refugee-hosting countries, provided the unique opportunity for refugee women to define their economic aspirations and the challenges they face in reaching them. The interviews uncovered common hurdles for refugee women looking to participate in the formal workforce, despite their distinct backgrounds, filling a research gap by including the voices of displaced women.

Work and the ability to earn a living emerged as a central theme in Germany and Kenya as to how women define economic empowerment. In Niger, the vast majority of participants talked about the presentation of an economically empowered woman, with those interviewed mentioning being “well-dressed and well-fed” as key indicators. When asked about the benefits of economic empowerment, women in Germany and Kenya mentioned greater freedom and independence for themselves as well as having more confidence, feeling less anxiety around meeting needs, and being more motivated and satisfied. In all three countries, male interviewees also described having additional financial support for the family and building household resilience when women were economically empowered.

“Economic programs in all settings -whether humanitarian, developing or wealthy contexts- are often designed without taking into account gender, let alone the unique needs and aspirations of refugee women in the specific contexts in which they live,” said Natalia Strigin, senior technical advisor, agriculture and rural livelihoods, International Rescue Committee “This new research further shines a light on the issues refugee women face in accessing the formal labor market and achieving economic empowerment, and for one of the first times, it’s in their own words. It is critical that we listen to these women and look for creative ways to remove these barriers, which will not only benefit displaced women, but the host countries in which they reside.”

Despite making up nearly half of the global refugee population, refugee women are consistently under or unemployed in greater numbers than other populations, which has only been further exacerbated by COVID-19[1]. As the international community celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action this month, data shows that refugee women tend to have dramatically lower employment rates than refugee men, or host country women, and face major pay gaps[2]. While the vast majority of refugee women interviewed in Kenya and Niger were engaged in some kind of income-generating activity, almost none of the participating refugee women in Germany were working.

Common external challenges refugee women face include: lack of access to capital to engage in income-generating opportunities, uncertain legal status and an inability to obtain required documentation, challenges in having skills and education recognized by employers, and inadequate access to and information about training and job opportunities. Regarding their individual agency, refugee women cited challenges in accessing childcare and unpaid care work, male and family preference over whether the woman should work, gender-based harassment and violence, social stigma, and a lack of autonomy in decision-making as barriers to entry. In most cases, refugee women maintained their existing unpaid care and household work in displacement, while also facing the additional burden of generating an income out of financial necessity. With some exceptions, interviewees reported that refugee men did not adequately share the load of household responsibilities even as women took on this new role.

This new research, funded by BlackRock not only highlights the common challenges refugee women face, but also how they interact and combine to further compound an already difficult situation, further exacerbated by the knock-on effects of COVID-19. While there are similarities, it is imperative that individualized and comprehensive support plans are put into place to ensure that refugee women’s unique experiences are accounted for and resulting solutions deliver upon what they view as economic empowerment.