It is not easy to be a refugee.  I should know; I was one.

As a refugee from east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has been living in Nairobi   since July 17, 2004, I have lived through the trials of those seeking somewhere safe to call home.  It is a life I would not wish for anybody; the instability of each day brings with it a profound unhappiness.  Nothing is yours, and so nothing can be taken for granted.

 

One thing I learned from my own experience was that it’s much more difficult for a women to be a refugee than a man.  Whilst men are able to worry about themselves as individuals, women often have to take care of children, which can be a source of greater mental, emotional, and physical stress.

Even outside contexts of armed conflict, women and girls seeking asylum are subject to serious human right violations resulting from gender-based discrimination and violence.  Where states are unable or unwilling to control such behavior, impunity spreads which obligates women and girls to flee in a search of safety.
 

Often limited by conflict and requiring discretion, refugees who lack conventional means of reaching a country where they can seek asylum often resort to paying smugglers to shepherd them through a perilous route to a safer place. Women and adolescent girls in such situations are all the more vulnerable; they may be forced into sex by border guards or others in return for permission to pass, and due to their need to remain discreet as they travel, they are at greater risk of being trafficked into prostitution and other forced labor.
 

The impact of forced displacement on women and girls can be devastating when families become separated, thereby removing the support and protection the family used to provide. Family members may have to assume different roles than they might otherwise be accustomed to, and abruptly.  Children can become parentified when taking care of younger siblings, whilst mothers may be forced to juggle the burden of being both caregiver and breadwinner.  The difficulty of this situation is exacerbated in high-pressure, unpredictable, and well-populated environments such as urban areas and camps.

In urban areas, forcibly-displaced women and girls are often forced by circumstance to live in squalid condition with alack access to fundamental services, such as education and health care.  Without consistent income to pay for rent or even food, women risk sexual exploitation by landlords and others in exchange for basic needs.  Women fleeing violence – either domestic or militaristically – are literally imprisoned by fear, hiding indoors to mitigate the risk of arrest and deportation, or the wrath of some vengeful husband, father, male sibling, or other relation.

In such circumstances, gainful employment is one avenue towards a happier life, but this, too, is fraught with risk.  If a women works as a domestic worker, she is often most vulnerable to her employer above all else, and subject to violence or physical, intellectual, emotional or financial exploitation at the hands of their employers.

In camps for displaced people, opportunity is often limited in decision-making processes and the pervasively restricted access for women and girls to fundamental rights can lead to sexual and gender-based violence.  It is not uncommon in such circumstances for women and girls to be attacked as they look for firewood or water, and due to a lack of (or biases within) existing judicial systems – or even a prevalence of traditional justice mechanisms weighted against women – those affected often have no redress, or are even subject to further stigmatization and discrimination if they call for accountability and justice.

As financial resources are depleted during a refugee’s journey, a new commodity emerges in the form of the adolescent girl.  For some women and girls, survival is contingent upon the exchange of sex, and some girls are married off at a young age to buy further time for her family.

In situations of internal displacement, humanitarian access is often limited due to the complexity of the situation.  Accordingly, women and girls in Internally Displaced Person camps are also more likely than not to be caught in the midst of ongoing conflict, and subject to all of its attendant risks, including repeated raids, forced military recruitment, and sexual and gender-based violence.

Protection

Despite the fact that the protection of refugees in the raison d’être of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) and that about 80% of refugee are women and their dependants, the protection of refugee women did not appear on the agenda of the UNHCR Executive until 1985.

The Human Rights Watch has stated that a wide range of abuses suffered by refugee women includes rape and other forms of sexual assault, but the reasons for why vary: some are raped because they are refugees and therefore seen as “the other”, some are raped because of their actual or perceived political or ethnic affiliations, and some are raped simply because they are women.  In Africa, it is not uncommon for a woman to be ostracized by her own community after being sexually assaulted, for she is perceived in many cultures to have failed at preserving her own dignity.  Because of the vulnerability of refugee women, and the high number of female heads of households and single females, a specific set of guidelines on the protection of refugee women was drafted in 1991 for the use of UNHCR staff and its implementing partners.

Research undertaken by UNHCR about sexual violence against asylum seekers identified a troubling spike in the number of refugee women being subjected to sexual assault.  Accordingly, UNHCR proposed a number of prevention measures for adoption to combat sexual violence, including calls for states to respect and ensure the fundamental rights of all individuals within their territory and to comply with international law by developing and implementing training programs aimed at promoting respect of people by law enforcement officers, implementing effective non-discriminatory legal remedies for those affected by sexual violence, and recognizing the personhood and legitimacy of refugees, amongst others.


Health

Access by refugee women to health care services is important to their own health, and for the welfare of their dependants, families, and wider communities.  Whilst all refugees suffer from lack of appropriate health care, both within and outside of camp contexts, women have specific medical needs such as proper antenatal and postnatal care, birth planning, and gynaecological services, which are rarely catered for.  Given the heightened risk of being subject to sexual assault in crisis zones, health education about preventing the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDs is essential for women.
 

UNHCR has identified that inappropriate or inaccessible health services can be an obstacle to promoting good health and wellbeing amongst refugee women and their families. In some refugee communities, harmful traditional beliefs undermine health-seeking behavior.  Some people believe that taking contraceptive pills and using condoms impact the length of gestation, or that women will have excessively long menstrual periods.  Accordingly, UNHCR programmes have endeavored to recruit refugee women as health workers to promote primary health care and appropriate health budgeting and planning, whilst challenging unscientific opinions that prevent the use of contraceptives.
 

Employment and Development

While one of UNHCR’s stated policies is that refugee camps are not a preferred location for people, and should be a solely temporary form of shelter, the placement of many refugees in long-term camps has become the norm rather than the exception. When the existence of camps progress from the Emergency stage to the Rehabilitation and Development phases, refugees are encouraged to become more financially self-sufficient.  In 1991, UHNCR acknowledged that in order for this to happen, a sufficient income was needed for refugee women, particularly those who are head of households.  During encampment, there are a number of ways that women can supplement their household incomes, including employment with implementing agencies and UNHCR itself by working on small agriculture activities, or through bartering, establishing small businesses, participating in skill-training programmes, and through formal income-generating projects.
 

However, these opportunities do not exist for all refugee women; there are additional requirements for many roles, such as language skills or literacy. As a large number of refugee women do not meet those requirements, their chances of benefiting from such engagement are very limited.  Therefore, in order to increase refugee women’s economic opportunity, UNHCR and its implementing partners have established a more comprehensive focus on developing and implementing literacy courses for refugee women, to better facilitate their integration into large income-generating projects.


Education and Skills Training

In refugee situations, education is oftentimes less of a priority than security, sanitation, and nutrition.  Thus, a large percentage of refugee children do not receive any schooling. When schooling is provided, boys frequently outnumber girls; the general rule is that the higher the age of the students in the classroom, the lower the number of enrolled girl students.  In recent years UNHCR has emphasized the need to develop programmes that promote education for girls, but there is still a long way to go. 

This effort has been compromised in some instances due to budgetary cutbacks, and even vocationally-beneficial skills training - an invaluable asset for refugee women seeking new skills that can be used in either their hosting country or upon their return home – are often out of reach due to cultural and practical constraints.

Education is like a ladder: to climb it effectively, one must first have the ability to lift their foot off the ground.  But if somebody cannot lift their foot easily – maybe they lack formal education, or their daily household, community work, or childcare – it can be overwhelming and exhausting to even step onto the ladder.  With numerous competing priorities and only so many hours in the day, it can be borderline impossible for refugee women to attend classes, concentrate properly when learning, and apply these skills professionally afterwards. To overcome these obstacles to women’s participation, frameworks must adequately ensure the provision of childcare, more flexible training courses that are timed around womens’ other commitments, and implement programmes that are especially designated to mitigate a lack of formal education.  All vital, and with them, refugee women can break beyond their misfortune to thrive in the next stage of their lives and go on to influence refugee policy, which is an explicit objective of the UNHCR’s policy on refugee women.

Conclusion

The difficulties refugee women face are compounded by their gender: lack of education, violence, lack of independence and protection, healthcare inaccessibility, and lack of opportunity makes involuntary displacement one of the most dangerous journeys a woman can undertake in her life.  But progress is happening, if slowly at present.  And if we are to bolster its momentum, we must empower women to become influencers of policy, narrative, and communities.

 

 

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