In the last few years, we have heard the term ‘refugee crisis’ so often, it has practically lost it’s meaning for us. The examples are countless: from recent conflicts, like the Syrian war, age-old economic asylum, as seen on the US-Mexico border or the flow of migrants from Indonesia to Australia, the powerful surge in refugees to Europe now making international headlines, or myriad smaller crisis between smaller neighbouring nations and with the internally displaced.
“The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit group, estimates that about 60 million people are displaced around the world right now, a figure higher than the estimated 50 million people left displaced at the conclusion of World War II.”
It is difficult not to grow numb to the plight of refugees, when it seems there are so many, in every corner of the world. Added to which, language and cultural barriers make it difficult to connect with those living in circumstances that are already impossible to imagine, much less understand.
Yet, refugee crises are one of the great tragedies of the modern era. Despite our advanced technology, increased connectedness and greater emphasis on global cooperation, we haven’t figured out how to grapple with the millions who find themselves displaced, disadvantaged and prone to exploitation or abuse.
Women caught in refugee crises are particularly vulnerable to gender based violence. A mass exodus of people in fragile psychological states, without basic resources or any guarantee of safety inevitably leads to a breakdown in societal structure. And, as in many cases, the brunt of this is borne by women and girls.
Women are at risk of being trafficked, coerced into survival sex, and subject to the sexual violence that seems entrenched in most humanitarian disasters. And, tragically, though it isn’t the norm, some perpetrators may be the very workers they are relying on for help.
For women, danger doesn’t only come from outside their communities.
Intimate partner violence increases. A women’s lowered status in society means she may be given more dangerous labour; one researcher highlighted women being sent to find firewood outside their camps because women were risking “only rape”, whereas men were considered more likely to be killed.
Gender-based violence in conflict isn’t limited to sexual violence, though that is often an assumption. As UNICEF explains, women are victimized in a myriad of ways, some as damaging as sexual violence, though less discussed.
As in all situations, gender based violence can cause profound psychological and physiological damage. Internally, sexual trauma breeds self-hatred and shame (often drawing ostracizion from a girl’s community as well).
Denying a woman of the ability to be economically independent robs her of autonomy, and makes her dependent on family, partners or those in positions of power, a breeding ground for poverty and abuse. For women who have children, this can be a particularly devastating situation.
Physiologically, the risk of sexually trasmitted diseases, fistula, infections or unwanted pregnancies can destroy her social standing or cripple her to the point where she can no longer work. It is a devastating problem which has ramifications far beyond the life of the individual.
There are numerous obstacles to tackling the issue of gender-based violence in refugee situations. These range from the smallest measures, like ensuring locks on doors and sex-segregated bathrooms, to the slower and less straightforward work of education and shifting cultural attitudes, to the logistical challenges of providing safety and security. Government services and humanitarian organizations, however, are stretched thin, and sometimes are simply unable to effect change under their circumstances. (For example, while working, one researcher found that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was only one worker investigating sex crimes in the eastern part of the country.)
These are not easy tasks in a world short on resources, and require hefty financial effort and political will. Its perennial presence in the news may have made investing in efforts against the cause seem fruitless. But for millions of faceless refugees, the assistance of an aid worker, a safe place to sleep, access to food or basic education for their children – all the things we take for granted – are life-saving differences.
For More Information:
- Survivors, Protectors, Survivors: Refugee Women Speak Out (UNHCR)
- Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: A Guide to Prevention and Response (UNHCR)
- Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies (Women’s Refugee Commission)
- Women Under Siege, Conflicts (Women’s Media Center)
Cover photo credit: Oxfam International, Flickr Creative Commons