Social networks, empowerment, and wellbeing among Syrian refugee and Jordanian women: Implications for development and social inclusion

In response to large-scale refugee crises, frameworks for development assistance have promoted women’s empowerment, wellbeing, and social inclusion. A productive research agenda lies in analyzing social networks: it is unknown how women structure their social ties within refugee and host communities, and whether social networks matter for their sense of empowerment and wellbeing. In 2022, we surveyed Syrian refugee (n = 106) and Jordanian (n = 109) women from poor households across five neighborhoods in Amman. We implemented a standard network survey instrument (PERSNET) to assess network structure and composition. We tested associations with six measures (PE, MRS, MTL, Cantril, PWB, MSPSS) of psychological empowerment and wellbeing. We then conducted participatory network mapping (Net-Map) to assess local meanings of empowerment and visually map the pathways between social actors, community-based work, and psychological outcomes. Survey data show that networks were highly homogeneous, smaller for Syrians than Jordanians (p = 0.0001), and smaller for women in very poor households (p < 0.0001). As network size increased, so did levels of psychological empowerment (p = 0.02), motivation to lead (p = 0.007) and perceived social support (p = 0.001). Notably, as networks became increasingly kin-based, empowerment levels decreased (p = 0.003). Networks were more diverse for community volunteers, who named fewer female, married, and kin-based peers (p ≤ 0.05), and reported higher levels of resourcefulness (p = 0.01) and psychological wellbeing (p = 0.002). Qualitative data show that women, who described empowerment as “ability” and “proof of existence,” drew upon volunteering work to diversify their networks outside the home. Such evidence matters for development initiatives that build programs for women to work, learn, and socially interact. We conclude that expanding opportunities for volunteer work is one way of diversifying social networks and empowering urban poor women. Our research helps better understand how women can be supported to diversify their social ties, take community leadership roles, and respond to social change.

DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2023.106324

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