Hannah Munday, Sona Circle
Isolation. It’s a word that has become all too familiar over the past two years, as the Covid pandemic has forced us to separate from family, friends and society at large. But for some, the sense and state of isolation neither began with, nor ends with government-mandated confinement. Separation from family and familiar society is an ongoing reality for refugees, who find themselves required to reorientate and integrate into entirely new contexts and cultures.
This can be a particular challenge for refugee women, who often experience distinct barriers to integration, especially when it comes to employment. Studies show that unemployment and low income are key causes of social and emotional isolation in the UK, and for female refugees, unemployment is a particularly complex situation. Although receipt of refugee status notionally gives them the green light to enter the workforce, many continue to face gender-specific challenges which may hinder or even prevent their search for employment.
In some cultures women are not permitted to work, especially if their husbands are unemployed, or they may be required to obtain their spouse’s permission before seeking a job. These attitudes may be carried over into life in the host society, where female refugees are often put under greater pressure to preserve their original cultural identities, whereas men and boys may be more encouraged to integrate. And while many women have the capacity and need to support themselves and their families financially, many are still expected to embody the reminiscences of their countries of origin by continuing to bear the large share of domestic responsibilities at the same time. This may deny them the time to access work opportunities or force them to accept low-paid, part-time and informal jobs that fit around their other duties.
Women and girls are also more likely to have had limited or no access to education and work experience before leaving their homes, placing them at high risk of exclusion from already crowded, highly competitive labour markets. While opportunities for training and language courses are available in many host nations, engaging in these may still be difficult given domestic commitments and childcare, or limited access to technology and travel, among other hurdles. On the other hand, many refugee women have had previous careers and gained qualifications before leaving their countries of origin – yet host countries can fail to recognise them, again often resulting in low-paid, under-employed positions, most commonly in the domestic labour sector.
Navigating these barriers can seem an impossible obstacle course for refugees, which itself can prevent women from developing a sense of connection, belonging and integration, often resulting in isolation and even invisibility. However, the problems remain relatively unaddressed in both theory and practice: few policies, social interventions and employment opportunities consider the specific circumstances of female refugees in general, let alone of individuals. By targeting the “average” refugee, integration programs fail to recognise the vast diversity among displaced people, meaning that those who do not fit the mould fall through the cracks into relative obscurity.
The situations of refugee women manifest an urgent need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a system that allows for individuals’ real-life situations to co-exist with their professions, especially in an age where work-life boundaries are increasingly blurred. This demands recognition that the problems lie not with refugee women, but with their host societies. It is not about unwillingness and inability to integrate on their part, but rather about lack of understanding and willingness to facilitate integration on ours. We need to stop defining experience and measuring potential purely according to the CV and reconsider what constitutes qualification. A particular refugee woman may have few formal qualifications or experience – but does her very testimony of survival not evidence extremes of persistence, resilience and tenacity that may be entirely missing from even the most crammed CV? We need to prioritise personal stories over pieces of paper, and for that we need to listen. We need to listen to the experts – not primarily the policy makers, nor the employers, but refugee women themselves, who know their stories and strengths like no one else. Giving them a seat at the table can shift their false representation as passive, helpless victims and enable widespread recognition of their immense potential – potential not only to contribute within a specific role, nor even just to shape their own futures, but to reform the world of work as a whole.
Only if we begin to listen to the needs of those least heard and often most excluded can we begin to shape a fairer, more open and more understanding climate for all: one which takes individual, isolated experiences into account, but which leaves no individual in isolation.
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If you know of any refugee women looking for work in the UK make sure to send them a link to our always expanding Jobs page where you can find various employment opportunities at all levels.