Published on Development for Peace

How gender norms influence school enrollment and domestic work for Syrian refugee adolescents in Jordan

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Syrian girls in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank Syrian girls in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

“When I look at my children, I know that finishing education is important… My parents think that a woman should complete her education. It depends on the family.”
Young Syrian woman in Jordan


This young woman is just one of 6.8 million Syrian refugees — the largest refugee population globally. These refugees, who are hosted primarily in neighboring countries such as Jordan, are disproportionately children, youth, and women. Almost half of the Syrians in Jordan are aged 0-14. As children enter adolescence, gender-related social norms (gender norms) increasingly shape their options and outcomes.   

Adolescence is the stage when boys’ and girls’ lives become strongly gender differentiated . In the Syrian Arab Republic and Jordan, during adolescence, boys’ spheres expand into the public space, while girls become increasingly restricted to the home. Girls’ restricted mobility and agency limits their ability to attend school, build social networks, and work outside the home. Inequitable gender norms thus contribute to a variety of adolescent and subsequent adult gender inequities. 

Forced displacement, such as that experienced by Syrian refugees, can change these gender norms . This shift is partly due to the new pressures put on refugees to survive, and partly because refugees are in a new cultural context (the host country). Forced displacement can change what people believe (their personal beliefs about gender or gender role attitudes) and what they do (gendered behaviors) in complex ways, affecting the outcomes of refugees and particularly adolescents who are already vulnerable and facing challenges related to their displacement.  

Our new research paper examines gender norms, domestic work, and school enrollment for Syrian refugee adolescent girls in Jordan, comparing girls and boys, adults and adolescents, Jordanians and Syrians. The paper shows key differences between groups in gender norms: 

  • Gender role attitudes are similar across generations. The Middle East and North Africa region is notable for the lack of change in gender role attitudes across generations, a substantial barrier to gender equity. 
  • Gender role attitudes are similar between Syrians and Jordanians. In this case, displacement did not expose refugees to substantially different gender norms. 
  • Women and girls have more equitable gender role attitudes than men. For example, women were more likely than men to agree that women should be allowed to work.  If men’s attitudes shifted to be similar to women’s, this could lead to reduced gender inequities. 
  • Syrian women are more mobile than Jordanian women, primarily due to more female-headed households among Syrians. However, Syrian adolescent girls are less mobile than Jordanian adolescent girls, likely due to safety, security, and reputation concerns.  

These differences in gender norms, in turn, shape important adolescent outcomes. The paper shows how gender role attitudes and gendered behaviors of adolescents, their family members, and their communities relate to their gendered outcomes, specifically school enrollment and domestic workloads . Some of the findings are as follows: 

  • Less gender-equitable fathers predict lower school enrollment for adolescent girls. Fathers are thus key gatekeepers for adolescent girls and need to be engaged in addressing gender inequities. 
  • When girls have more equitable gender role attitudes, they have significantly higher enrollment in school. Girls’ belief in gender equity may help them persist in school, and they may also develop more equitable attitudes by remaining in school. 
  • When girls have greater decision-making power, they engage in less domestic work. Empowering adolescent girls can help shift inequitable domestic work burdens.  
  • When girls’ mothers have greater decision-making power, girls engage in less domestic work. Mothers with more agency can be an important support to reducing domestic work for their daughters.  

So, what do these results say about the lives of Syrian refugees? There are a few main takeaways that can be used to inform policy and design of development and humanitarian programs to support women and girls. 

Supporting the success of adolescent refugee girls is critical for preventing a lost generation . Addressing inequitable gender norms is important to ensuring girls can achieve their aspirations, even in contexts of displacement. More broadly, the skills and resources that adolescent refugee girls can contribute to the well-being of their communities are too valuable to waste.  

With the right support, adolescent girls and women can contribute to fostering the resilience and self-reliance of refugees— in a manner that also benefits host communities—in line with the vision of the Global Compact on Refugees. If we do not prevent refugee girls from falling behind, we are failing a generation and wasting an opportunity for longer-term change towards gender equality . Norms-change programming can be done in refugee settings, helping girls to retain mobility and agency. Addressing inequitable gender norms must be an explicit part of refugee-focused funding moving forward.    


This work is part of the program "Building the Evidence on Forced Displacement: A Multi-Stakeholder Partnership''. The program is funded by UK aid from the United Kingdom's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). It is managed by the World Bank Group (WBG) and was established in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).   


Caroline Krafft

Associate Professor Of Economics - St. Catherine University

Ragui Assaad

Professor - Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

Isabel Pastoor

Economist - St. Catherine University

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