Sweden Deports Victims of Child Marriage and Torture to Afghanistan

[Sweden] please just kill me. I would rather die than be sent back to Afghanistan.

Those are the roughly translated words of an 18-year-old refugee in Sweden who fled child marriage, violence and abuse. After 2 years of uncertainty in Sweden, she has just received a deportation order. She is to be sent back to the hell she fled from in Afghanistan. This young woman has learnt Swedish and wants no more than to give back to her new society. She wants peace, freedom and safety.

Sweden has a long reputation for taking strides in humanity, gender equality and human rights. In 2014, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called upon Swedes to open their hearts to the surge of refugees arriving in Europe. Yet, in the past years Sweden has reversed its stance, closing its borders and limiting the options for asylum seekers to stay in the country. Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, is concerned about these developments. Read his 2018 report on Sweden.

Sweden is sending civilian asylum seekers back to war torn Afghanistan, even as insecurity has increased in recent years.

A new UN report documents 2018 as the year with the highest recorded number of civilians killed in the Afghan conflict. The report also shows the increased toll of the conflict on children.

To make matters worse, Sweden is also sending back refugees who face grave risks should they return to Afghanistan. This includes girls who have fled child marriage, young LGBTQ individuals, and those who have converted from Islam.

Sweden can no longer take a prize as a leader for human rights, if this torture continues within our borders. Many refugees who receive deportation decisions arrived in Sweden as minors and have lived in the country for years. Many have learned to speak the language, and built networks through schools, churches, sports clubs and human rights organizations. However, these asylum seekers are not believed or deemed trustworthy as they tell their stories to Swedish authorities.

Many suffer from ill mental health due to the uncertainty of their lives and the many risks they face.

Karolinska Institutet released a report in February 2018 showing the alarming number of suicides among refugees in Sweden. The suicide rate among unaccompanied refugees up to the age of 21 was 51.2 per 100,000 in 2017, compared to 5.2 per 100,000 among the same age group of the general population in 2016. If these frightening statistics are not evidence of stories of war, torture and abuse, I don’t know what is.

Desperate to avoid deportation, some turn to the media to tell their stories. This increases the risk of being found by their perpetrators and family members. The ones who believe they deserve to be killed in the name of honor for leaving their marriages or religion.

Sweden cannot take a prize as one of the best countries for women, either. That statement only refers to women of privilege and women who already live in safety. If Sweden deports girls (and boys) who have been victims of child marriage in Afghanistan, we are not acknowledging the human rights violation that affects 35% of girls. We are ignoring the fact that these refugees lack the support networks they need to avoid abuse and violence upon returning.

In the Joint Way Forward agreement between the EU and the Islamic State of Afghanistan it is agreed that: “Unaccompanied minors are not to be returned without successful tracing of family members or without adequate reception and care-taking arrangements having been put in place in Afghanistan.”

As child marriage is an institution built by families, the family is not a safe space to be returned to.

This also applies to those who have come out as LGBTQ or who now identify as Christian. Death threats among these groups of refugees are commonplace and returning is not an option. What we need to do is believe them when they share their stories and use our privilege to advocate for them.

Sweden needs to act now to avoid sending people to face violence or even death in the name of honor.

Learn even more:

Gender Based Violence and the Refugee Crisis

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.”

Peter Dizikes, MIT

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.

Farah-InfographicGender-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:

Cover photo credit: Oxfam International, Flickr Creative Commons

Global Displacement at a Record High – Even for Expecting & New Mothers

Over 42,000 people fled their homes every single day in 2014, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reported in the release of their annual report last week.

The number of displaced people in the world today has hit an all time high due to war and conflict, amounting to almost 60 million people – half of them children. If all these people formed a country, it would be the 24th largest and more than 6 times the population of my home country, Sweden.

So, what actually happens to people who have been forced from their homes and away from their every-day lives?

Most are displaced within their country or in neighboring countries, where life is on hold at a refugee camp – without access to basic necessities and activities, like jobs and education. The majority of refugees don’t find a safe haven in Europe or other western countries, and only a small number of people have the option to take the risky, if not deadly, journey across the Mediterranean.

In the example of Syria, Hans Rosling explains it well:

Last year Save the Children reported that the average refugee situation lasts 17 years and now UNHCR says that at this rate the global situation is likely to worsen.

In situations of war, conflicts, persecution and even natural disasters women and girls pay an even higher price. Sexual violence is used as a tactical weapon of war and in refugee camps women and girls face a high risk of rape, other forms of sexual violence and early marriage. Furthermore, the lack of infrastructure and health systems leave refugee populations without access to basic health care.

Mother and Newborn
Photo Credit: Gates Foundation on Flickr

Pregnant and breastfeeding women cannot put their and their babies’ lives on hold. Life is just beginning and these women have an incredible need for maternal and newborn health services, as well as a nutritious diet for themselves and their babies.

UNFPA estimates that almost half a million Syrian women are pregnant. In Nepal, Save the Children estimates that 21,000 women were in their third trimester when the earthquake struck. Being in the last stages of pregnancy is tough, physically and psychologically. As a woman your body is the lifeline for a new human being and you are the one foremost responsible for the well-being of your little one – but without access to basic services and support this is almost impossible!

The number of displaced people is now at a record high, and so is the number of expecting and new mothers who have been forced away from what they had hoped would be a safe place for their new babies.

As we urge our leaders to take critical action to address wars, conflicts and natural disasters, we must ensure that maternal, newborn and adolescent health is a crucial and central part of their response.

Learn more and join the conversation next Tuesday as we discuss how to respond to women’s and children’s health needs in crisis situations with partners Save the Children, Women LEAD Nepal and Edna Adan Hospital Foundation. 


Here are a few things you can do today

Featured Image Photo Credit: Gates Foundation on Flickr 

International Day of Peace 2014

In Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he compared the tremendous scientific achievements the world had made by the 1960s to the values we held as a society.

We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

He went on to say, ‘This problem of spiritual and moral lag…expresses itself in three larger problems…Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.’

This year’s International Day of Peace takes place when peace looks impossible to reach. Lately, the news has been discouraging. News of war, famine, violence and disease can be seen daily and for me, and I am sure for others, the news is frightening. Last week, Pope Francis remarked that the world’s many conflicts amount to piecemeal World War Three.

I think Martin Luther King’s words sadly ring true 40 years later.

The recent headlines include some of the most tragic events our history has seen including:

  • The shooting down of flight MH17, with its links to the unrest in Ukraine.
  • The conflict in Syria has amounted to more deaths and refugees than the genocide in Rwanda.
  • The beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS and a few days later, Steven Sotloff, heroes who wanted to bring awareness to injustice.
  • The kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram.
  • Overcrowded boats of migrants capsizing trying to escape poverty.
  • A shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.

Despite the complexity and confusion that surrounds these tragic situations, I think our society can overcome them. Even though we are not the ones in positions of power, we can not forget we have a voice. We live in a time where social media allows us to gain knowledge of global events more quickly and gives us the opportunity to raise our voice. Social media is a tool to understand  these issues affect everyone.

Photo Credit: Liz Fortier
Photo Credit: Liz Fortier

Girls’ Globe utilizes social media to track the progress of the Millennium Development Goals as they relate to women and children. The eight goals aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases, ensure environmental stability, and promote global partnership for development. Despite various barriers to achieving the goals, the one thing that would prevent any of them from occurring is the absence of peace. As Martin Luther King alluded to, racial injustice, poverty, and war, are still the major underlying factors preventing peace today.

Photo Credit: Liz Fortier
Photo Credit: Liz Fortier

The founder of Girls’ Globe, Julia Wiklander recently wrote about how women and children are the most vulnerable in times of conflict. Women are raped at higher rates, experience trauma, and newborns and pregnant women lack critical healthcare and nutrition. Education opportunities are minimized, and infectious diseases can spread more quickly in places without healthcare infrastructures.

The overflowing Syrian refugee camps are becoming places where sexual exploitation of displaced women and girls is common place. Women are objectified, bought and sold or kidnapped, and presented as gifts to leaders of some of these terrorists sects.

Despite how angry or scared we might feel about the horrifying events happening in the news, we must not think that perpetuating violence is the answer.  Let’s ask our leaders to promote policies for social and racial justice and peace. In this way we will more easily achieve the MDGs and protect those most vulnerable in times of war and conflict.

As Martin Luther King went on, he remarked on the nonviolent progress the US had made for civil rights in the years preceding, and the hope he had for a peaceful future.

Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.

We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. -Martin Luther King Jr.

Want to take action?

Visit the UN’s International Day of Peace website to learn what others are doing to promote peace.

September 21st-26th Girls’ Globe will be in New York for the 2014 UN General Assembly. We are partnering with FHI360, Johnson & Johnson, and Women Deliver in support of Every Woman Every Child to amplify the global conversation on the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 agenda. Follow #MDG456Live, raise your voice and join the conversation to advance women’s and children’s health. Sign up for the Daily Delivery to receive live crowd-sourced coverage of these issues directly to your inbox.

When Disaster Strikes, Mothers and Newborns Are the Most Vulnerable

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

UNHCR / F. Noy
European Commission / UNHCR / F. Noy via Flickr

What would you do if disaster struck? What would be the first thing you would think about if you found out that your family had to flee from your home? What would be on your mind as you struggle to stay hidden amongst air raids and bombed streets?

If disaster struck today — if a natural disaster swept away my entire community or if internal unrest escalated to a civil war — I know that I would think about how to stay safe, how to ensure that my family and friends could stay safe and how to keep my unborn baby alive and healthy.

For expecting mothers around the globe, this happens daily. Disaster does hit and they remain pregnant, with a growing baby in their womb that needs care, rest and nutrition. Yet, when we speak of disasters and conflict, we speak about who is to blame, we talk about peace-keeping and humanitarian operations, or we debate asylum for refugees — as a burden for the receiving countries.

What we often forget to speak about are the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who still need maternal health care. We forget to speak about the women and girls who risk giving birth in refugee camps, in evacuated villages or even on the road. Yesterday marked the 500 Day milestone until the deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and unfortunately, mothers and newborns — especially those in conflict and disaster — have not yet seen the sufficient progress, especially with regard to MDGs 4 and 5, related to newborn and maternal health.

This year’s State of the World’s Mothers Report, released by Save the Children, shows that mothers and children face the greatest risk of death during emergencies.

In 2014, an estimated 80 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance due to conflict, persecution or natural disasters. The majority of these people are deeply impoverished and over three-quarters are women and children. Furthermore, for those who survive, their lives have been completely altered. Save the Children estimates that the average refugee situation lasts 17 years!

The civil war in Syria is now in its 4th year. It is estimated that 1,000 women and children have been killed in conflict every month. Yet, several hundreds (if not thousands) more have died due to food shortages and the lack of medical care. Women in Syria no longer have a reliable health-care system to access essential maternal, antenatal and neonatal services. Prior to the conflict, Syria was on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals related to maternal and child health, yet the conflict threatens to set back several decades of progress.

Around the world, mothers and their babies need us. The countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality are countries with internal conflict or other emergencies. Thus, we cannot discuss maternal, newborn and child health without speaking about peace and security.

As we discuss the situation in occupied Palestine, the horrific persecution of Christians in Northern Iraq, the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, and the heinous crimes of Boko Haram in Nigeria and beyond — we must remember the mothers and the children who are hit the hardest.

The suffering will only end once we collectively speak up, make our voices heard and in solidarity chime in with their suffering to hold our leaders accountable.

Now is the time to ensure that global and national action is taken, not only to accelerate progress to meet the Millennium Development Goals that are due in exactly 500 days, but to ensure that the goals and targets that are set up in the post-2015 agenda include specific attention to the women and children in conflict settings.

Here are a few things you can do to make a difference:

  • Join the online conversation using #MDGMomentum
  • Contact your government officials to see what your country is doing to support women and children in conflict and emergency settings
  • Read the recommendations in Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers Report
  • Read the recommendations in the Every Newborn Action Plan
  • Tell the world what you will do to #Commit2Deliver for women and children
  • Foremost, raise your voice and let others know that you will not stay silent about the women and children affected by conflict and emergencies.

Rape and Sexual Violence – It’s #TimeToAct

Rape is not something that people in my community talk about.

If a woman is raped, she is expected to somehow deal with it on her own. People will always find a way to blame the victim, not the perpetrator. Rape is a violation of a person’s human rights, an act of violence and an act that can have serious ramifications on a person’s life. Rape is an act of sexual violence, an act that we have silenced for decades and neglected.

Rape is not a woman’s issue or a humanitarian issue. It is a global issue.

Right now, women are experiencing sexual violence in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Central African Republic. Right now, women are experiencing sexual violence every day in Nigeria. In a recent post, I highlighted how the 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped had been sold into sex slavery for as little as USD $15.

The world sat and watched with their arms folded as 500,000 women were raped during 100 days of conflict in Rwanda. Globally, women’s bodies are being used as a weapon of war. Women are being abused, and we are doing nothing. Women are being beaten, and we are doing nothing. Women are being sold into sex slavery, and we are doing nothing. The consequences of our lack of actions means that whole communities are destroyed, and the pain of the victims are locked in their hearts, because they live in societies where speaking out is not accepted.

These women become powerless. My hero, Leymah Gbowee, commented on sexual violence during her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize address:

“Women had become the toy of war, for over-drugged young militias. Sexual abuse and exploitation spared no woman; we were raped and abused regardless of our age, religious or social status. A common scene daily was a mother watching her young one being forcibly recruited or her daughter being taken away as the wife of another drug emboldened fighter.”

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be raped. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be raped and to have to remain silent about it. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be used as an object for a weak man to express his power. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose my innocence.

The silence surrounding rape and sexual violence must be shattered and this cycle of injustice must be broken.

Men rape women because they know that the lack of law enforcement means that they will not be punished for their act. They know that a woman will be asked questions like “what were you wearing?” or “what were you doing at that time of night?” When I was recently walking on the streets of Lagos, I was aware of the fact that the man following me could decide to rape me if he wanted to, and he would probably go unpunished.

Rape is a serious human rights violation and the international community must wake up to the severity of this issue.

We can no longer remain silent. We must speak up for the women who experienced sexual violence in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda. We must speak up for the women who continue to experience sexual violence everyday.

Photo c/o Flickr Creative Commons
Photo c/o Flickr Creative Commons

At the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie, over 125 countries pledged their support to help combat sexual violence in conflict. This must now translate into tangible action, and we must stop this injustice occurring every day and destroying the lives of innocent victims. No matter what the situation is, rape and sexual violence is NEVER okay.

I heard one girl’s story of rape. Her story was heart wrenching, but her optimism was infectious. The women who experience rape and sexual violence have hope. They have suffered a great injustice and their bodies have been hurt in a way that we can never repair. But surely if they have the few remaining droplets of hope, we should have hope too? It is our job to ensure that we stop counting the numbers of women who have been raped. It is our job to ensure that sexual violence in conflict is completely eradicated.

It is not impossible to stop rape and sexual violence. As Audrey Hepburn said, “the word itself says I’m possible.” When we talk about our daughters being raped, we must also consider our sons who raped them. We must educate our men about how it’s never okay to sexually assault a woman. We must speak for change in our local communities, in our countries and around the world.

Now is the time to ensure that this grave injustice that has a ripple effect on all of humanity is stopped.

Now is the #TimeToAct

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.