How does poverty differ among refugees? Taking a gender lens to the data on Syrian refugees in Jordan

Lucia Hanmer, Eliana Rubiano, Julieth Santamaria, and Diana J Arango

Middle East Development Journal (2020)

Working paper available here.


This paper quantifies differences between male- and female-headed households’ incidence of poverty and identifies some of the demographic characteristics that are linked to greater poverty risk. The analysis is based on microdata on Syrian individuals and households who arrived and registered in Jordan between 2011 and 2014 drawn from two UNHCR datasets: the Profile Global Registration System (ProGres) database and the Jordanian Home-Visits (JD-HV) dataset.

ProGres includes demographic information on each household’s Principal Applicant (PA) and all the other individuals registered under the PA, including the relationship to the PA, age, sex, and marital status. The JD-HV dataset is a non-randomized sample of ProGres containing socio-economic data, including household expenditure, which is used to calculate poverty.

Households are categorized into six types as follows: (1) single person (18 years or older); (2) unaccompanied child (under age 18); (3) single caregiver with dependents (children, elderly or disabled persons); (4) couple without children; (5) couple with children; and (6) non-nuclear or other households that don’t fit into the preceding categories, including extended family, sibling and polygamous households. The final category is split into households with and without children.

One third of Syrian refugee households in Jordan have a female PA. There are stark differences between the characteristics of male and female PA households in terms of marital status, household type and education:

  • 90 percent of female PAs have an absent spouse or no spouse, compared to only 25 percent of male PAs.
  • While 66 percent of male PAs are in a couple with children, only 9 percent of female PAs fall into this category.
  • Most female PAs are single caregivers (48 percent) and single persons (20 percent), while most male PAs are in a couple with children (66 percent).
  • Female PAs are less educated on average. 29 percent of female PAs have less than six years of education (compared to 17 percent of male PAs), and only 15 percent of them have more than 12 years of education (compared to 19 percent of male PAs).

Additionally, there are several gender gaps that influence the poverty risk faced by households:

  • A higher proportion of adult men live in households with a male PA and a higher proportion of adult women live in households with a female PA. Having a larger number of adult males is linked to lower risk of household poverty, since male labor force participation is less constrained than female labor force participation.
  • Some categories of households are especially vulnerable if the PA is female. Single‐caregiver households with female PAs have more children on average but less access to employment than male PA single caregiver households. Compared with unaccompanied children with a male PA, unaccompanied children with a female PA have little access to irregular and daily work compared to other household types.


Key results from the empirical analysis:

  • Overall, there is no difference between the poverty rates of male and female PA households before they receive humanitarian assistance. Over half of refugee households registered with UNHCR (53 percent) are poor before they receive humanitarian assistance.
  • Disaggregation by marital status reveals considerable poverty gaps between female PA and male PA households before humanitarian assistance. For example, before they receive humanitarian assistance, 57 percent of female PAs who are married but living without their spouse are poor compared to 30 percent of comparable male PAs.
  • Disaggregation by household category reveals considerable poverty gaps between female PA and male PA households before humanitarian assistance for several household types. For example, poverty rates are considerably higher for female single caregivers than for male single caregivers, 60 percent versus 45 percent. 61 percent of female PAs who are unaccompanied children are poor compared to 41 percent of male PAs in this category.
  • Humanitarian assistance reduces overall poverty from 53 percent to 11 percent, but the rate of reduction varies between male and female PAs according to their marital status and household type. Poverty gaps in favor of male PA households remain for PAs who are married but living without their spouse, single or engaged, widowers/widows, or divorced/separated. Female PA households have significantly higher rates of poverty than male PA households in all household types except for couples with children.
  • Households formed following displacement (for example, sibling households, unaccompanied children, and single caregivers) are extremely vulnerable, especially if the PA is a woman or a girl. Poverty gaps between male and female PAs for these vulnerable households persist even after humanitarian assistance is received.
  • The higher risk of poverty among female PAs is attributed to differences in household composition. The number of able-bodied males in the household is significantly associated with a lower likelihood of poverty for both male and female PAs, but the effect is much larger when the PA is a man. Additionally, larger household size is associated with increased poverty risk for both male and female PA households, but the effect is slightly higher when the PA is female.

In their conclusion, the authors note that although assistance lifted considerable numbers of Syrian refugee households out of poverty in 2013/14, the gender poverty gap widened. The gap is statistically explained by the initial endowments or features that characterize female PA households compared to male PA households such as the presence of children under five, presence of elderly people, differences in education, and household size.