Globally today we are witnessing an “inexorable intensification of violence” in the world’s armed conflicts, which has resulted in the most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War. UNHCR’s Strategic Directions 2017-2021 states that by the end of 2015, over 65 million people worldwide were displaced from their homes due to conflict and persecution. The situation was made even more complex and precarious on March 20, 2016, when the European Union and Turkey launched a highly politicized plan to reduce the flow of refugees into Europe, driving refugees into the arms of smugglers and traffickers. In such critical times of crisis and displacement, problems of gender discrimination and sexual violence escalate, and women and girls – especially those who are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of households, disabled or elderly – are especially vulnerable. In the words of U.N. Relief Official Kyung-Wha Kang, “while entire communities suffer the impact of armed conflict, women and girls are often the first to lose their rights to education, to political participation and to livelihoods, among other rights being bluntly violated.” International Women’s Day (March 8) is drawing nearer and, as the refugee crisis continues on an alarming scale, greater attention needs to be paid to the gender-specific challenges faced by women and girls fleeing from armed conflict, violence, insecurity and human rights abuses.
One of the biggest – and according to the Women’s Refugee Commission, vastly unreported – problems faced by refugee women and girls is that of sexual and gender based violence. Female refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey and governments and aid agencies are failing to provide even basic protections. Research conducted by Amnesty International shows that in almost all of the countries passed through by interviewed female refugees, they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation and were groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees. Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe has reported: “every single woman I came to meet in my reporting described or alluded to rape — either of themselves or of others — as they traversed the African continent through Libya to cross the sea to Italy”. There is also a serious threat of sexual and gender based violence in refugee camps, where sanitary facilities are often not segregated by sex. A UNHRC report explains “in many refugee situations, particularly those involving the confinement of refugees in closed camps, traditional behavioural norms and restraints break down. In such circumstances refugee women and girls may be raped by other refugees, acting either individually or in gangs, and self-appointed leaders may thwart attempts to punish the offenders.” Human Rights Watch reported the testimony of a 19-year-old single woman from Eritrea living in a refugee “hotspot” in Vathi, Greece: “we went to the police and asked to be taken to a separate part of the camp from the men who try to abuse us, but the police refused to help us. We fled our country for exactly this reason, and here in this camp we are afraid to leave our tent.” Alarmingly, not only do camp personnel fail to adequately respond to reports of gender based violence, but in some cases have also been known to be its perpetrators; Amnesty International reported the testimony of a 22-year-old Iraqi woman who was offered clothes by an uniformed security guard in Germany in exchange for “spending time alone” with him. Underreporting of sexual and gender based violence due to a climate of victim shaming and blaming continues to be a problem and reports have suggested that abused women may not disclose episodes of rape and sexual violence out of fear of being denied refugee status or visas on moral grounds. Further, women and underage girls have been forced to enter what are called ‘protection marriages’ in order to avoid sexual assault or shame and social stigma.
Another related challenge facing women and girls in refugee camps is the lack of access to contraception or maternal healthcare and a lack of knowledge about reproductive health. An estimated 10% of refugee women in Greece are pregnant, yet basic services for neonatal and postpartum mothers and their children in refugee camps are negligible. Further, the Women’s Refugee Commission has found that while all refugees have inadequate access to legal information, women are the least informed, tending to stay in their tents for safety when legal aid groups visit the camps. These problems are exacerbated by the lack of female translators or dedicated women’s health staff with knowledge of Farsi or Arabic to ensure that women are understood when speaking to law enforcement or physicians.
Even after their harrowing journey, refugee women and girls face further challenges in the host country, where integration policies are not always gender sensitive. Further research is needed, but studies have shown that female refugees in host countries are expected to shoulder a greater burden of housework and childcare and that, analogously, male children receive greater encouragement to integrate in the host society compared to their female counterparts. This is a significant obstacle to women’s integration and independence, as many immigrant women struggle to reconcile family care duties and language training, without which it is significantly more difficult to access the labour market, use public transport, autonomously procure the goods they need, access health services and understand their rights without men’s mediation. In many countries, priority for childcare is given to parents who are employed, which obviously penalizes refugee women who are unemployed and looking for work.
Any humanitarian solution to the refugee crisis needs to take into account its complexity and intersectionality and strive for solutions which address the specific difficulties faced by especially vulnerable groups of people who are still often overlooked – including not only women, but also children, refugees with disabilities, older people and LGBT+ people. In particular, although all refugees face unimaginable horror, policies designed to promote refugees’ rights and wellbeing cannot be gender neutral, as women and girls face gender-specific challenges in both their journeys and their subsequent integration into the host society.
A 2016 UNHCR report stresses the importance of increasing the active participation of refugee women, to ensure them greater influence over the policies that impact them, their families and their communities. Women are more likely to trust and confide in women with similar experiences; the empowerment and placing of refugee women at the centre of policymaking could thus combat one of the most fundamental challenges: a general lack of data concerning the specific problems of women refugees. Acting as intermediaries between governments and refugee communities, refugee women could help raise awareness about the criminal nature of gender based violence and create the right conditions in camps and reception centres to enable victims of sexual violence to report the crime and receive support. The active involvement of refugees who are skilled and trained in the field of reproductive health – midwives, doctors, nurses, etc. – and/or the use of interpreters who are community members could have a significant impact, as refugee women who speak only their native language may be reluctant to use their children or other family members as interpreters when discussing their reproductive health or sexual trauma. In addition, safety audits of camps and transit sites should be conducted; there should be screening for gender based violence at health check-ups and resources should be committed for providing contraception, maternal health care and other facilities and services. Workshops and programmes to raise awareness about gender equality and women’s rights and combat domestic violence and abuse should also engage men and boys, who research suggests can feel threatened by the loss of social status involved in transitioning to a new society.
Further, childcare facilities should be set up in order to guarantee female refugees the possibility to leave reception centres and attend interviews with asylum authorities, job interviews, medical appointments, etc. Such services should consider that female refugees have to balance education and other integration related activities with a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare, and thus should schedule accordingly around their daily routine.
Essentially, whilst we continue to strive for a humanitarian solution for all refugees, the intersectionality of the crisis must not be overlooked. The complexities of refugees’ experiences are negotiated through and shaped by intersections of race, class, gender, age, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and various other identities. More research into the experiences of women refugees must be conducted and gender concerns should be kept in mind in the search for solutions.
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