The refugee crisis: a women’s rights issue

Shailini Vora | Dec 11, 2016
WLAC support women refugees in Tanzania
Nobody risks their lives by squeezing into the back of a dark, claustrophobic lorry, by jumping over barbed wire fences and attempting to cross choppy waters on rickety boats – unless they are certain that this will be safer than staying put in their war-torn home. Political instability and violence, especially in Syria and Afghanistan, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees making these journeys to reach European shores.

On 25 November it was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – and this marked the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence campaign. Throughout this campaign, Womankind raised awareness and mobilised people to make a change by remembering that violence against women and girls affects one in three of us, in our lifetimes. 

Given the widespread abuse of women and girl refugees, the current refugee crisis is a sad reminder that gender-based violence can manifest in new ways and new contexts.

Experiencing abuse on the journey

The UN has estimated that nearly half of refugees arriving onto Mediterranean shores are women and children. It’s a frightening prospect for any woman to make the treacherous journey to Europe, whether she’s travelling alone, with kids or with a male partner. While these journeys present a serious risk of abuse and exploitation for all involved, women and girls are much more likely than men to be subjected to violence and abuse.

The determination of refugee women to reach their destination increases their risk of sexual violence: there have been many reports of smugglers forcing women into transactional sex in exchange for priority in the long line of people wanting to enter Europe. This problem will only get worse as increasing restrictions are placed by the EU on smuggling routes.

Unsafe, insecure refugee camps

When women eventually reach a resting point, insecure accommodation and bad conditions within refugee camps, as well as lack of sanitation facilities all contribute to an unsafe, unprotected environment where women are easily targeted by men, either refugees, men from the host community or reportedly humanitarian aid workers. We’ve also got to remember that existing gender roles within the household don’t just dissolve when a family leaves their home in search of a better life. In fact, refugee women could be more at risk of staying in abusive relationships, since they’re disconnected from familial support and in unfamiliar, difficult situations and therefore reluctant or unable to continue alone.

It is nearly impossible to hold perpetrators to account and seek justice and support for the survivors of sexual violence. Refugees are continuously on the move and this makes it extremely difficult to punish those culpable and give effective medical and trauma support to survivors. Sexual violence has a deep stigma attached to it, and women have reported being disowned by their families upon reaching the camps. Also, as an undocumented person, they are often reluctant to trust humanitarian workers and officials for fear of being detained and sent back home.

What can we do to help?

While the current crisis in Europe is the worst we have seen since WWII, the situation is a truly global one, with 86% of refugees being hosted in developing countries. Womankind has been working with our partner Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp where there are currently over 130,000 refugees and the threat of sexual violence a growing concern for women and girls.

WLAC has been helping women and girl survivors of violence rebuild their lives through counselling and legal aid, and training refugees, law enforcers and service providers on handling cases of violence against women. If it weren’t for the brave women who have shared their experiences and stories of violence, organisations like our partner WLAC, and women in camps organising and creating spaces of safety and solidarity, it would be a much bleaker situation.

While the situation is complex, supporting organisations such as WLAC can go a long way in helping women refugees access the support that they need. But we must also pressure governments into doing all they can to ensure women refugees’ rights are protected and promoted. Last month, Womankind signed a joint statement alongside 44 other NGOs, based around the world, to call for more action from the UN and member states. Protection from violence for refugee women must be a top priority.

A huge attitudinal shift in the way women are viewed and treated is needed to eliminate violence against women and girls but there are concrete steps that we can take to ensure their safety immediately - such as secure accommodation and sanitation facilities in camps, legal migration routes, and humanitarian support that takes women’s specific needs into account.

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