Often traumatised from fleeing disaster and unimaginable violence, refugees arriving in the UK have been forced to leave their culture and their support systems behind. Upon arrival, they face multiple barriers to integration, only made worse by virtue of gender; according to the Home Office, women refugees are one of the least integrated groups in the UK.
Since 2016, World Jewish Relief has been working with refugees in the UK to provide employment support through our award-winning Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP). Whilst STEP has gone from strength to strength, through evaluation we found that women refugees were getting less job outcomes, dropping out more frequently, and weren’t moving through the programme as quickly as men.
But what barriers do they face?
Structural barriers are often to blame, such as:
- Household responsibilities.
- Cultural expectations preventing women entering the workplace.
- Lower levels of education and language skills due to lack of schooling (our research into our UK refugee programmes found that 43% of women refugees only had up to primary level education.
- Increased likelihood of trauma due to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
- Lack of access to support networks and social opportunities, leading to social isolation.
Women refugees also take on the vast majority of caring responsibilities, making it harder for them to attend courses. Where they may have once relied on friends or family for support, they no longer have that option. Access to money and finances can also mean transport becomes inaccessible and unaffordable.
What is STEP Forward?
STEP Forward aims to reduce these barriers to integration, empowering women to be independent, make informed decisions about their lives, and take the next step on their employment and integration journeys.
Classes take place through term time, and childcare and transport costs are covered, meaning more women can afford to attend the course. This has resulted in an 88% attendance rate on our STEP Forward programme. Over 36 weeks, the women attend classes covering education, English, and a range of skills aimed at tackling the barriers to integration mentioned above. We have already seen over 40% of women move up a literacy group, and over 50% reporting improved wellbeing.
What does integration actually look like?
It can mean multiple things to different people: access to economic opportunity, shared language, culture, or even just acceptance – all core tenets of STEP Forward. Interestingly, when we asked the women on STEP Forward what it meant to them, the common theme was always connection with those around them.
When STEP Forward first started, many of the women were shy and out of their comfort zone. Fast-forward to six months later, midway through the programme, and the difference is striking. Not only has their passion for learning grown, but the levels of confidence and friendship extending throughout the cohort are extraordinary. Women who struggled to put up their hand to ask a question at the beginning of the course are now presenting to the whole class. The women are joking and laughing, and those who had no support network before are now meeting up regularly outside of class.
One participant on our STEP Forward programme said:
This programme gave me the hope to do what I wanted to do. All my friends would love this programme to continue to help other women.
Through this it’s clear: connection has been found and fostered. In a women-only environment, they have been able to flourish and reap all the benefits of their newfound self-confidence, continuing to build their employability skills and integrate successfully into the UK.