How Can We Help The Refugee Women?

As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign, one of the issues and themes that needs and deserves our global attention is protecting refugee women and girls. Throughout this campaign series, the importance of protecting refugee women has been highlighted. Now let’s turn our attention on how to help these women adapt and integrate in their new countries, to ensure long-term safety and security.

My home country, Sweden, is currently accepting most refugees per capita out of all the European countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the native Swedes are experiencing all emotions ranging from suspicion to full out racism against the migrants, while the nation is also having a hard time integrating the newcomers in our society. We have no connection whatsoever to what these people have experienced before entering what we like to call “safe haven”. It’s difficult for some Swedes to see how it can be so challenging to adapt to our culture, when we’ve granted them a life here, among us. This is often due to pure lack of knowledge. We fail to see how vulnerable, scared and tired the refugees are, and choose to regard the situation as an economical issue rather than a humanitarian one. We don’t know where they come from, what they have seen, and what they´ve experienced. This complicates the integration of the newcomers, especially for the women, and this must change.

When women flee their countries to become refugees, they put the fraction of security they have left aside. They risk losing their families and identities, and are in danger of becoming victims of rape and other forms of violence. Many refugee women are pregnant, putting their health at grave risk without access to proper maternal healthcare. By the time these women finally arrive  to our northern countries to settle down for a safe life, many of them have been even further traumatized by the perilous journey – in addition to the trauma they already had endured in the conflict zones they are fleeing. These women, many traveling with their children, have been sleeping in places that are strange to them, sometimes next to men they don’t know, and some might have experienced the horror of being raped or assaulted. When arrive, they experience major culture shock, and have to reconcile between their old identity in their home country and a new one in a country they know nothing about. This is something we must have in mind while integrating them in our community.

The UNHCR’s ambition is to have refugee women feel safe, stay healthy and empower them to take control of their lives.  When they arrive to their new home countries, this is what we must help them with. To regain control of their lives. In many of the cultures these refugees are coming from, it is often the father’s responsibly to protect the families. Some women might have lost their husbands, and now have to take on a new, leading role of the family. We must help women deal with their past, while finding themselves in their new country.

For refugee women, the risks and dangers associated with the journey to flee war is only the beginning of the challenges they face. When arriving to their new home countries they are often met with racism and incapability, or unwillingness, to help. Wearing veils might be disliked in some countries, due to xenophobia. Women who have experienced sexual violence might be isolated not only by the community, but also by their husbands. Violence against refugee women sometimes continue in their new countries, as hate crimes and other cruelties are frequently reported from refugee accommodations. Is this the reality we want survivors to meet when arriving in our countries? Shouldn’t this be the place of safety and security, like it is for us?

So let us, during these 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, think of how we can help refugee women. We need to prioritize the integration of our new citizens. We need to find a way to be able to guarantee these brave people their security. We need to help women embrace themselves and their rights so that they can deal with their horrible experiences. A society needs strong women, and for them to be strong we need all of them to feel like they belong and have the chance to properly heal and recover – so that they can create a better future for themselves and their kids. Let’s get together to welcome these fighters to their safety. Let’s show them there is a good world out there for them as well.

Cover Photo Credit: Surian Soosay, Flickr Creative Commons 

This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.

Violence against child brides

We don’t know much about the lives of child brides. But we do know that married girls are often subject to sexual, physical and psychological abuse by their husbands.

Child brides are the poorest girls in the poorest communities. While culture and tradition sometimes play a role in their marriage, often they are forced to marry adult men because their families are too poor to continue to raise them.

When a girl marries, she typically leaves her parents and goes to live with her husband. Here she faces a very new reality: suddenly she is no longer being raised by her parents. Instead, her husband is raising her to be the kind of wife he desires.

If she wants to go to the market, she must ask her husband’s permission.

If she wants to listen to the radio, she must ask his permission.

And when she does something wrong, her husband punishes her. That punishment often entails violence.

Nujood Ali, who lives in Yemen, offers us a glimpse into the world of child brides. According to UNICEF 12% of girls in Yemen are married by age 15 and 32% by 18. Nujood was one of the 12%: at age nine, she was forced to marry a man in his 30s. Nujood was raped and beaten by her husband, and then beaten again by her mother-in-law when she sought her help.

Then at the age of ten, Nujood fled her marital home with the money she was given to buy bread. She boarded a bus to the capital city, asked directions to the court and then entered and asked for a divorce. With the help of the human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, Nujood was granted a divorce at age 10. But divorce isn’t an option for most married girls. They enter a violent union as children and remain there for the rest of their lives.

Globally, girls who marry before 18 are more likely to report physical and sexual violence. “Violence is a part of marriage,” one child bride in Ethiopia explained. “If my husband isn’t happy with me, he beats me. He’s been beating me since our wedding night.” In Ethiopia, sexual violence is also a marital norm among child brides. “Yes means yes,” another girl explained regarding sex. “And no means yes too.”

Even the act of marriage itself is a form of violence against girls. It’s a rupture of childhood when girls are thrown into the world of an adult before they are physically and psychologically ready. It turns marriage into a prison and mocks the concept of safety, security and dignity.

As we campaign for an end to violence against girls and women, on November 26th and 27th Zambia hosted the first African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage. Globally, organizations like the UNFPA, Girls Not Brides and the Population Council are leading the fight against this horrific form of violence. For information on what you can do, download the Girls Not Brides end child marriage campaign engagement toolkit. You can also read Nujood’s story in her book, I am Nujood: Age 10 and Divorced.

In our work toward gender equity and justice, let’s remember child brides. If we can help the most marginalized girls, we can help all of humanity.

Why you should care about GamerGate

And what it means for global violence against girls and women.

Shortly after publishing, someone under the name "Gaimerg8," posted what they claimed was her home address, also known as “doxxing”.
Shortly after publishing, someone under the name “Gaimerg8,” posted what they claimed was her home address, also known as “doxxing”.

Last week, actress and gamer Felicia Day posted an entry on her blog – “Crossing the Street” –to share her concerns that an online gaming campaign has made her fearful to engage with a culture she truly enjoys. Knowing full well that her words could (and now have) result in an outpour of angry, abusive, and downright vicious attacks, Day’s post has caught attention from the media struggling to understand the ugly phenomenon known as GamerGate – an online movement of gamers openly harassing female bloggers, developers, and critics with violent threats of rape and death. Yes, as women speak out against the violence, victimization, and inequality in video games, the response has been actual violence, harassment, and real threats to their safety.

Grand Theft Auto 5: @GTAForums
Grand Theft Auto 5, Credit: GTAForums

The objectification of women in entertainment is nothing new. One needn’t look very far to see over-sexualized, scantily clad women being dominated by men. Flip through the closest magazine or look at the nearest billboard. Within the gaming culture, women have expressed increasing concern from the way female gamers are treated, to the actual representation of women in games and the amount of gratuitous violence and commodification of female characters. In the popular action-adventure game series, Grand Theft Auto, male characters are free to not only engage in sexual encounters with prostitutes, but also kill them and take their money back. In September, Japanese developers announced a new head-mounted display game that includes a pair of realistic fake breasts that players can grip as they look at a virtual image of a girl whom they can sexually assault. Yet, those who feel uncomfortable with the alarming direction games are headed are not only being shut out of the conversation, they are now being physically threatened. Ironic, isn’t it?

As we grapple with the reality that violence against women, sexual assault, and the objectification of women’s bodies continues to be deemed as an appropriate and acceptable form of “entertainment” in Western countries, the latest conversation around GamerGate highlights a global reality: physical, sexual, and emotional violence threatens every single girl and woman, every single day of her life. According the latest report from UNICEF, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence every 10 minutes somewhere in the world. Yet, these deaths represent only the most extreme assaults in a long continuum of violence faced by girls on a daily basis, usually at the hands of those closest to them.

Credit: Dolce&Gabana
Credit: Dolce&Gabana

Is this the world we want our girls to grow up in? A world where 1 in 4 women is physically or sexually abused during her pregnancy? A world where more than 39,000 girls under the age of 18 experience early or forced marriage? A world where 98 percent of the 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation are girls and women? A world where two young girls in search of a toilet can result in brutal gang rape and death? A world where violence is the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally?

Our girls deserve a world where they can transition into womanhood without sexuality and gender roles dominating and defining the trajectory of their lives.

For many girls, their first experience of sexual intercourse is unwanted or coerced. Those married as young brides face especially high risks of physical, emotional, and sexual violence along with limited to no personal freedom or decision-making power. The continued lowered status of girls in our global society, coupled with the tendency of men and boys to exert power, are key factors in the high rates of violence experienced by adolescent girls. And when these realities carry into adulthood, those patterns of violence and limitations become a burden for every generation.

Next month the world will commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – a reminder that violence against women is a human rights violation that impedes global progress in many areas, including poverty combating HIV/AIDS, and peace and security, as well as a call for action. So what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Raise awareness: Participate in Orange Day – November 25th – by wearing something orange to highlight the calls for the eradication of violence against women. You can submit a photo online with the message, “I wear orange because…”
  • Continue the movement: Join ongoing campaigns like VDAY and ManUp working to engage youth, advance gender equality, and transform communities, nations, and the world.
  • Raise your voice: Look for public rallies and events, such as “Take Back the Night”, raise money for community-based rape crisis centers or women’s shelters, or organize a fundraiser to benefit those working to end all forms of gender violence.
  • Educate yourself: Attend programs, take classes, watch films, and read articles and books about multicultural masculinities, gender inequality, and the root causes of gender violence. Educate yourself and others!
  • Engage more than just girls and women: Check out organizations like MenEngage who work with men and boys to promote gender equality.

We have the ability to end violence against girls and women, not overnight, but in a generation. To do it, we need a global shift in the attitudes towards women, and that means teaching boys and men to challenge and change attitudes around violence and sexism. We must continue to educate and work with young boys and girls to promote respectful relationships and gender equality. And we must not wait for an annual observance to begin. The time to end violence against girls and women is NOW.

Why We Need #YesAllWomen

I take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male.
-Elliot Rodger’s Retribution

Just before the Isla Vista Killings on May 23, 2014, assailant Elliot Rodger posted a video on his YouTube channel that outlined his plans to punish the women who “have never been attracted to [him]”, which he dubs “an injustice [and] a crime”. With a Glock 34 pistol, two SIG Sauer P226 pistols, two machetes, a hammer and knife in tow, Rodger actualized his “War on Women” by stabbing three male students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and committing a series of drive-by shootings, killing two women and one man in the process.

Why did this “War on Women” break out? Rodger was frustrated that women didn’t want to date or have sex with him and desired to live up to his self-proclaimed “true alpha male” status, a status that apparently can only be achieved by having sex with or shooting women. His classification of romantic or sexual rejection as an “injustice” or “crime” deserving of retribution reflects a dangerously narrow notion of “masculinity”, which no doubt fostered a false sense of entitlement that translated into violence.

In the wake of these killings, calls for mental healthcare improvements have been renewed, yet, grossly overlooked is the reality that this senseless Santa Barbara massacre and its roots are also symptomatic of a wider cultural epidemic – normalized violence against women in a misogynistic social climate. Violence against women has reached pandemic proportions, and the universal nature of gender-based violence is underscored in the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, which has offered people of both genders across the world a forum for discussion about the impacts of misogyny and the ramifications of failing to recognize these discriminatory attitudes.

#YesAllWomen has provided a medium for impassioned tirades against gender-oriented violence, a norm that has for too long, been perpetuated. This prolongation is evidenced by, among other things, the fact that it is 2014 and we are still having a debate on Twitter about whether women should consent to unwanted sex with a stranger or dating partner, the fact that despite extensive education about sexual violence there is never any doubt whether a man means “no” when he says it, and the fact that rape survivors are stigmatized yet some rapists are lionized. From this, it’s easy to conclude that gender inequalities still abound everywhere, our society has failed to curb these inequalities, and that perverse cultural expectations must change for the better.

The 1,200,000+ tweets under #YesAllWomen are incontrovertible proofs that violence against women is not endemic to specific regions – it is a problem that occurs everywhere and must be stopped. Although only a minority of men can be called “rapists” or “perpetrators”, all women have to deal with workplace sexual harassment, “casual” rape jokes, or anxieties about getting shot, assaulted or beaten when they reject prospective dating partners.

That only a few men are rapists – which is the basis for #YesAllWomen’s criticism – cannot be used as an excuse to ignore or deny the fact that universally, women are subjected to gender-based violence. It also cannot be used as a bargaining chip to put the blame of violence on women. Violence against women and girls is never, ever a woman or girl’s fault. It is also never, ever something that women or girls should be ashamed of or receive negative judgment for. Instead of teaching women how to dress and be safe, society must teach men that violence against women in all its forms is an egregious violation of human rights and is never, under any circumstances, acceptable.

#YesAllWomen’s message is a call to action: to bring to the fore that violence against women is never justifiable, to declare that women never have to owe anyone access to their bodies, to put an end to longstanding discrimination that sees women vilified and attacked based on the clothes they wear, the makeup they apply or the sheer fact that they are women. Jimmy Carter’s words capture #YesAllWomen’s philosophy for change:

The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.

Are you ready to address and prevent these appalling human rights violations?

Let’s not allow flawed logic and silly excuses to stop us from having important conversations about gender-based violence. Let’s not silence the women who want to come forward and share their experiences with misogyny and assault. Let’s not perpetuate violence against women by turning blind eyes to behavior that dehumanizes women and makes them inevitable targets of rape and abuse. Instead, let’s ignite positive action to challenge and change the harmful laws and practices that condone sex-directed violence.