Ahin Hassan’s family were angry when she decided to get a job. Her parents expected the 22-year-old to stay at home and focus on her domestic duties. They warned her that the decision would ruin and “corrupt her mind”.
But Ahin remained defiant because she knew her family needed the extra money. “We were struggling to meet our material needs at home, so I wanted to work instead,” she tells VICE News.
Ahin and her family live in Tirbespi, a village in northern Syria, which borders the autonomous Kurdistan Region and Iraq, also known as Rojava. In 2005, faced with the threat of ISIS and Assad’s government, a large women’s movement grew, eventually forming their own fighting units to protect themselves.
This movement has developed into a wide range of support systems, including co-operatives that have been created to help women secure financial independence.
Ahin – along with her friend and colleague, Fatima – found work through the Baxçeya Demsal (The Season Garden) – an agriculture co-operative that sustainably farms vegetables to sell at markets and in surrounding villages. The group, which is run by women aged 20 to 50, currently employs around 40 women – but they are looking to expand to meet the growing demand.
Nine years of conflict has devastated the region. Countless women have been widowed, left to find some way to make money and support their family. Fatima’s husband left for Iraq four years ago. She doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t financially support her and their four children. The co-operative, she said, has given her a chance to provide for her family and even send her daughter to school.
Despite bringing home more money than ever before, Ahin and Fatima are still met with hostility back home, as older, more conservative relatives struggle to grasp the importance of financial independence for women, leading to “daily arguments,” Ahin said.
Since Syrian state forces withdrew from this region in 2012, the Kurdish party have governed in a relatively progressive way. By law, every government institution in Kurdish-controlled Syria has to have an equal gender balance; forced and underage marriages are now banned, women have the right to a divorce and they have equal rights to the family property.
Typically, a woman working as an in-season ad-hoc labourer can earn 40,000 Syrian pounds (£60). With the Baxçeya Demsal, their salary could reach 100,000 Syrian pounds (£150). That’s a big jump for the women, particularly in a country that is fighting ongoing conflict, poverty, an economic crisis and now COVID-19.
The work requires training in typically male-dominated fields: carrying out invoices, repairing machinery, delivering vegetables. Ahin sees it as an opportunity to show other women what’s possible. “I sell vegetables to my neighbours and in the city and I show them, yes, women can do this work,” Ahin said.
Food prices in Syria are at the highest level since the conflict started. According to the World Food Programme, there has been an average increase of more than 240 percent in the last year, while the Syrian pound has lost half its value in the past two months.
“Women who are the head of their households, are among the most vulnerable in Syria and are likely to be among the most impacted by this latest crisis,” Danielle Moylan, UN Spokesperson for Syria told VICE News.
Rojava is outside of the Syrian government’s control, so residents will have to fight COVID-19 alone if it badly hits the area; so far, there have been around 840 confirmed cases, but that number has been rapidly rising following a new outbreak at the start of August.
They cannot count on any aid, either, heightening the challenge. The Security Council decided in January to restrict the UN’s access, following a Russian veto threat. The effective embargo by Russia and Turkey has cleaved aid flow, with around 40 ventilators for a population of a few million, there is the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe. The food crisis is “yet another blow to so many millions of people living in Syria who have already been subject to unimaginable hardship and suffering,” Moylan added.
But Ahin, Fatima and the rest of the co-operative are doing their part to avert the crisis. “Vegetables and other essentials have become very expensive, and there is a shortage. The Demsal project will help to fill this gap,” said Armanc Muhammad, co-chair of the Women's Economy organisation in North and East Syria.
The Baxçeya Demsal have recently applied to the Atlas of Utopia’s Transformative Cities initiative – a “global gallery of community-led collectives working on solutions to ensure access to water, food, energy and housing.” If they receive the funding it will enable more women to join the project.
As things stand, Demsal sells vegetables at an affordable price, but not enough for the whole town. “Our aim is to expand, with a further 3000 dunams [300 hectares] of produce, so we can solve this problem on a wider level,” Muhammad explained. “Eventually there should be a positive domino effect on the whole area, too, as the project will hopefully put pressure on the local market — who import produce — to set more equitable prices.” And their vegetables are more sustainable, relying on fewer imports and using little to no fertilisers or pesticides.
Eventually, the Baxçeya Demsal hopes to have an actual shop in Tirbespi. “Despite the financial crisis we are still managing to pay a wage to all the women,” Ahin said. “We want more women to join the project and to help the whole community.”