Although UNHCR states that refugees are among some of the most vulnerable people in the world, the difference between the experience of refugee women and refugee men cannot be dismissed. We must start to understand the differences so we can improve the already difficult experience for refugee women.
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), defines refugees as:
‘People who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country’.
The reasons why refugees leave their homes vary. Some of the reasons can include: civil war, environmental disasters, climate change or persecution taking forms of racial, religious, political, social or national. Nevertheless, the most important thing to remember is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in article 14, ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. This must remain at the forefront of discussions and ensure that refugees are protected from discrimination.
Here are some of the many factors that contribute to a different experience between refugee men and women:
Sexual Violence Against Women
“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.” -Former Peacekeeping Commander for the UN
Firstly, women often face an increased amount of gender-based violence during conflict. This includes rape, which is now recognized by the UN as a weapon of war. It can be understood as a weapon of war by looking at some of the intended effects including terrorizing communities, humiliate men, break up families, destroy communities, and sometimes with the purpose to change the genetic makeup of an ethnic group. This sometimes involves infecting women with HIV so that they are discouraged from having children.
By examining these intended effects of rape during war, it becomes clear and even more important that it must be viewed as a war crime rather than just a ‘consequence’ of war. The detrimental effect on women, both mentally and physically, cannot be ignored or dismissed. Treating it as a crime means we can implement change, but believe it is just a consequence that does not lead to the progress these women are relying on.
“Sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is; it can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war.” -UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura
Unfortunately, the fear of sexual violence and exploitation does not end for these women after leaving the area of conflict. This risk will likely continue to affect them on the journey to seek safety. Traveling to a safer country means a lack of resources and money. Some women will see no option other than trading sex for food, shelter, or money in order to survive. These occurrences can lead to sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, and psychological damage including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. In some instances, women become enslaved into the sex industry or even trafficked, and this has only accelerated and increased due to globalization.
Globalization is the increased interconnectedness between borders allowing for more trade and cultural exchange. However, something that gets forgotten in the shadows of globalization is the indirect effect of human trafficking. Globalization has allowed for easier access to countries and the possibility to go unnoticed. Refugee women can be easy targets for traffickers who offer false promises such as student grants, education, housing or shelter. Women consequently become a part of this lucrative business and are treated as nothing more than a commodity.
Exploitation At The Work
In parallel to this, globalization allows for the easy exploitation of workers. Fast fashion and TNCs have created low paid jobs that are exploitative and often employ workers on zero-hour contracts. Zero hour contracts mean that workers do not have any certainty of an income and never know how little or how often they will be working. According to ONS, women are more likely than men to be on zero-hour contracts. When arriving in a host country, refugee women will most likely be accepted on a zero-hour contract if applying for work. This unreliable contract often bears a burden on these women’s financial states while being overworked and paid minimum wage.
Child Care Responsibilities
Alongside zero-hour contracts, refugees have to get accustomed to the new environment of a host country and financial support. The devastating story of Mercy Baguma shows the lack of support from host countries. Mercy Baguma was a Ugandan refugee living in Glasgow, Scotland. She lived with her young infant but was left with very little financial support from the UK government. In the UK, refugees are entitled to only £36.95 a week and £3 extra if you have a child aged 1-3 years. This £3 extra isn’t even enough to buy the average priced children’s nappies in the UK, which on average cost £5. This unacceptably small income is potentially one of the reasons Mercy Baguma ended up in destitution and consequently led to her death. This not only shows the UK’s harsh support system but how refugee women are affected differently. Women are more likely to be looking after a child and feel the responsibility to put their child’s health before their own while struggling financially.
Furthermore, in many societies around the globe, women are still presumed to be the main caregiver. This ingrained idea does not disappear in refugee settings, and women will often still feel that they are responsible for bringing up the children in such a difficult environment. The pressure only continues when they also take on the responsibility to care for the old and sick, often prioritizing other family members before their own health.
Access to Education and Prevalence of Child Marriage
Education is also a critical institution that inevitably gets interrupted during war. This interruption can have a different effect on young girls than boys. Many communities around the globe don’t value girls’ education equally as boys’ education. Thus when there is acute poverty or lack of access, which is often the case with many refugee families, girls are dropped out of the schools much earlier, and at a higher rate than boys. Education is crucial for girls and can act as a form of protection against societal dangers. When not in education, girls can be at a high risk of forced marriage, child marriage, sexual exploitation, or exploitative labor. During a humanitarian crisis, global responses do not usually put education on the list of priorities. However, looking at the consequences for girls without education, this needs to change. Education can bring about hope for young girls who have gone through a traumatic experience and maybe in a hostile environment. Education may act as their only support system for their development as well as protecting them from external risks.
‘We should not ask a child forced to flee her home to also give up her education and her dreams for the future’ -Malala Yousafzai
Sexual, Reproductive and Maternal Health
Other obstacles that affect specifically only refugee women include the inevitable biological differences. Women have menstruation needs between the years of 10- and 50, and this does not stop during times of conflict. Refugee women have raised concerns over the lack of sanitary materials in refugee camps. Often the allowance refugees are given by the UN, can only be spared on food and water purchases. Managing a period may come at the bottom of the list and affect women going to work, training or education.
Moreover, with women being at a high risk of sexual violence, there is a demand for easy access to information, safe abortions, contraception, and protection from HIV/AIDS. If refugee women are lacking the information and resources for their reproductive health there can be devastating consequences. For example, forced or unwanted pregnancy can lead to ‘back-alley’ abortions which can cause critical medical complications or even death. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are around 25 million unsafe abortions performed each year. This continues to be a problem that needs to be addressed for as long as there are women who are in danger.
Women also have the biological responsibility of carrying a child. The fear and uncertainty for women can be terrifying, for example, not knowing what country and environment they will be in for the birth. Refugee women have stated that they need staff in refugee camps who are trained to provide caesareans and emergency care for both the mother and baby.
All of this comes under reproductive rights. Reproductive rights are now recognized as human rights, they can include: the right to birth control, the right to safe abortions, the right to reproductive health care, freedom from coerced sterilization, and the right to education and information to be able to make these choices. Amnesty International goes into greater detail as to what reproductive rights entail and how to exercise these rights. Refugee women cannot be excluded from these rights and arguably need them more than anyone.
Access to Food and Nutrition
Nutrition plays a potential problem for women in refugee settings, too. It is sometimes hard for women to be well-nourished when there is a scarcity of money and resources. Something that has been most commonly found is that girls and women tend to be disproportionately affected by malnutrition and hunger. Due to women’s physiology, women are more vulnerable to iron deficiency and therefore can become severely anaemic if not well nourished. When sharing food, it is not unfamiliar that the woman will allow the rest of the family to eat before her. This can be incredibly dangerous especially for women who are pregnant. If not treated, it can lead to things such as, a premature birth, a baby with anaemia, as well as increasing the risk of postpartum depression.
‘The anaemia levels for children and women in protracted refugee situations worldwide are higher than WHO standards for severe public health issue’ -UNHCR & WFP, 2006
In addition to this stress, women also have a psychological burden placed upon them regarding the disruption to their livelihood and home. For many women, the home is the place in which she feels safe. This is because the home can offer protection from violence and harassment in the street. It is also the place to nurture children and for some women, their main social activities. During the conflict, women have to leave this social hub and safe space, adding a huge amount of distress and potential psychological issues.
How can we improve the experience for refugee women?
Health and Nutrition
- Firstly, as stated above we need to recognize women’s health as separate from men’s health. Making sure that there are supplies of sanitary materials in refugee camps. The organization Loving Humanity, is one big step for helping provide sanitary materials at a low cost for refugee women. This can help women begin work and send girls to school, as well as feeling empowered of being in full control of their bodies.
- Acknowledging women’s reproductive rights and providing women with education as to what their rights are is essential. Women need to feel in complete control of their reproductive health so that they are empowered and know what choices they can make, as well as having easy access to sexual health services.
- Sufficient food and drinking water must be provided. As well as an understanding that women have significantly greater needs for nutritious food, due to vitamin deficiencies and anemia.
Shelter and Education
- Refugee women need access to a safe shelter where they are protected from violence. The safe shelter can also provide a community of women for support.
- If we can provide more access to education, girls can have more opportunities available to them when rebuilding their lives either in another country or after conflict. Ensuring education is undisrupted not only provides hope but protects girls.
Refugees need to be able to have access to a fair justice system. There is a lack of information regarding where refugees can access this justice system as well as the extra burden of financial, logistical and language barriers.
To help solve this, we need to increase the access to lawyers, as we know, everyone is entitled to the justice system, this does not exclude refugees. Refugees need access to knowledge and information on what their rights are and how they can exercise them.
Host countries and support systems
As demonstrated by the death of Mercy Baguma, there are many flawed immigration systems. Host countries need to step up and support vulnerable people allowing them access to public funds so that they have a chance at rebuilding their lives.
In addition to this, we need to advocate for a support system specifically for refugee women. This needs to recognize the different experiences and help women physically and psychologically mend from any trauma. It is not enough just to rely on volunteers, but to have a reliable well-funded support system in place.
Sexual and gender-based violence is still prevalent in most societies and is something that needs to be addressed everywhere. It is arguably deeply rooted in patriarchal systems in society. To solve this, we need to understand that valuing women starts during socialization. Destroying gender norms and gender roles can dismantle attitudes that are ingrained in us all. All kinds of factors contribute to the dismantling of this system including; politics, media, socialisation, art, education, work, and more. This may be the hardest obstacle of them all, but it is possible.
‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’ -Audre Lorde
Among the most critical factors to consider is the inclusion of refugee women on the panel for decision making. We need to begin to acknowledge their experience and implement change. Focusing on the main issues refugee women themselves have stated: adequate shelter, job opportunities, education, health care, and recognising reproductive rights. Let’s recognize that refugee women do and have had completely different experiences to refugee men, these women need to be seen and heard rather than made invisible. Finally and possibly most importantly, it needs to be emphasized refugees have the right to seek asylum and we should always welcome refugees with open arms.
Some resources for more information on the areas mentioned:
To find out more about zero hour contracts and how it affects women click here
To find out more about Mercy Baguma’s case please click here
More on rape as a weapon of war and the United Nations’ response to it
A few charities that are helping to improve the situation for refugees all around the world: