When Islamic State militants brutally invaded her hometown of Kobani in Syria, Shorash didn’t initially see it as a career opportunity.
Grabbing only what she could carry, Shorash and her family trekked on foot across the Turkish border. After months of sleeping rough in parks and bouncing from one refugee camp to another, they eventually settled near Erbil, in Iraq’s relatively stable Kurdistan region.
“I had been looking for work without any success, and was feeling rather bored and frustrated,” said 23-year-old Shorash, who did not disclose her surname for security reasons.
One day, her husband told her about a local women’s centre, run by non-profit group “Women for Women International” (WfWI), that offered training to help women establish businesses.
A law graduate, Shorash was a diligent student and attended all classes, even giving birth to her daughter just hours after her final exams.
She developed a plan to establish a greenhouse construction business – in demand in the region as a modern way to grow fruit and vegetables.
“The programme changed my life – I no longer feel lonely and isolated as before,” she said.
Gender equality and empowerment of women are among the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals designed to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.
Nowhere is support for women more important and urgent than in post-conflict situations, experts say.
“We believe that women survivors of war are agents of change, (and) that through empowering women we will actually empower the entire community,” said Mandana Hendessi, WfWI’s director for the Syria crisis response and Iraq.
The WfWI centre, one of three in Iraq, enables women to rebuild their lives after conflict, to meet in a safe space, and to learn new skills.
“People do have a very distorted view of refugee life,” Hendessi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They think everybody is just sitting there in a tent waiting for food to arrive or for medicine… but we’re talking about women who back in Syria were incredibly resourceful, generally quite educated and losing all of their identity once they became a refugee.”
Some 4.9 million Syrians – the majority women and children – are refugees in neighbouring states, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
The WfWI programme in Iraq supports around 400 mainly Syrian and Yazidi female refugees, and also works with men to ensure social cohesion.
As is common in post-conflict societies, many of the women have lost their male relatives to war, and find themselves thrust into the position of sole breadwinner. One in four Syrian refugee families is now headed by a woman, according to WfWI.
Projects like that supporting Shorash encourage women to grasp entrepreneurial opportunities, nurturing start-ups from wedding services and hair-salons to bakeries and sweet shops.
Research suggests men often do not adapt as well as women to new roles in times of conflict, said Nicola Jones, principal research fellow at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.
“Often women have been more flexible,” she said.
Rather than waiting for institutions to be rebuilt after wars, which can take generations, women’s informal networks are an increasingly powerful tool for driving forward economic and social recovery, she added.
In northern Nigeria, a region under the shadow of Boko Haram militants, Fatima Adamu is working to equip young women to become midwives and healthcare practitioners.
In patriarchal rural communities, Adamu negotiates with local leaders to nominate a young woman to train in the city who will then return home to help close the village healthcare gap.
“The reality is nobody is coming from the city to fill that space for you, (so) you must provide,” said Adamu, explaining how she persuades villages to participate.
The “Women for Health” programme, led by Health Partners International, aims to train more than 6,000 female workers and deploy them to rural health facilities in a region where up to 90 percent of women deliver their babies without a skilled birth attendant present.
On graduating, the young women are usually employed by local governments, and must work for a minimum of three years in their villages before they can move elsewhere.
The programme has faced some resistance, however.
At least a handful of women have been divorced during their absence or returned home to find their husbands have taken another wife, said Adamu.
In some cases, the community has rallied to pressure the husband to support his wife’s training, knowing the village will benefit in the long term.
The women often take up leadership roles when they return and are more able to negotiate power structures, said Adamu.
Educating women and girls is “the surest way to address the challenges of extremism, poverty and… break the cycle of inequality”, she said, in the region ravaged by Boko Haram, an Islamist group whose insurgency has killed 15,000 people and forced some 2 million from their homes. Historically, conflicts can accelerate women’s rights and social opportunities, as seen after World War Two in Europe, while working women can help pick up the pieces and contribute significantly to rebuilding war-torn communities, experts say.
“Often post-conflict there are real opportunities to rethink the social and political contract with citizens,” said ODI’s Jones.