Refugee women – we see but don’t hear

Copyright: IRIN/Kate Holt.

In 2011, the UNHCR hosted a dialogue with over 1,000 refugee, asylum seeking and internally displaced women and girls in India, Colombia, Jordan, Uganda, Zambia, Thailand and Finland.  In June 2011, women were invited to Geneva to present what they observe as core challenges when it comes to the protection of their rights and fulfillment of their needs. The dialogue centered on ten-core protection areas.  Here, I quote some of the concerns expressed and raised in the project’s report.  I have chosen to highlight these passages in the report to reveal the bravery of displaced women and the complexity of the challenges they face.  Some passages also highlight how our collective failings have facilitated the continued exclusion of women’s experiences and knowledge from decision-making circles.

1. Individual documentation

“Concerns were also expressed that, when no documents are produced to support an application, the credibility of asylum-seekers is often doubted. Officials and judges who determine refugee status need to be made aware that documents can be missing because of war, sudden flight and travel, and that credibility can be established by other means.”

2. Women in leadership

“Women reported that they are often marginalized by men in their homes and routinely excluded from meaningful positions in their families and communities. Many are denied education, which can exclude them from learning the languages used in meetings. In addition to cultural obstacles, negative stereotyping of refugee women by people in the community may also obstruct their empowerment and hinder their capacity to take up leadership responsibilities.”

3. Education

“Host countries often do not offer tailored language programmes adapted to different age groups, including elderly women and men. They do not make available to refugees courses that will enable them to adapt or upgrade their skills, so that they can more easily search for employment, participate in host country education programmes, or adapt to a new lifestyle.  When vocational and adult courses are available, they often target men and boys or are given at times when women cannot attend because of family duties. Little attention is given to the needs of pre-literate women.”

4. Economic self-reliance

“Lack of access to employment and to legal means of income generation were two of the biggest hardships reported by refugee women and girls. Many women, especially single mothers, face a desperate situation because they are not authorized to work in their host countries and lack  access to adequate subsistence allowances or rations. They cannot pay rent or purchase food and other essential items, and this affects their health as well as their ability to send their children to school.”

5. Shelter

“Overcrowding causes both health problems and domestic stress. Lack of privacy contributes to family breakdown, because married couples have no privacy for intimacy and women are ashamed to undress in rooms in which their children also live. Lack of privacy also poses particular problems for women and girls during menstruation. Single women who head households may find it particularly difficult to afford rents, and may have to live in inadequate dwellings.”

6. Sexual and gender based violence

“In every Dialogue, women discussed sexual and gender based violence in its many forms: rape and torture during conflict; sexual harassment; rape, exploitation and abuse in the workplace and at school; ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians; and domestic violence precipitated or aggravated by the trauma of displacement. Women and girls [and men and boys] also suffer from discrimination, racism and ostracism, especially if it is known that they have been raped or sexually assaulted.”

 7. Other forms of violence

“Racist and xenophobic violence was raised in every site. This particularly affects women and girls when they are targets of sexual abuse because they are different from the local populations. This causes all members of the community both physical and psychological distress. In some cases, the police and authorities have little understanding of the refugees’ experience or may themselves be responsible for violence and discrimination.

On some occasions, women reported that displaced persons reproduce the violence from which they have suffered. This increases domestic violence and discrimination against other groups of displaced persons. Women and girls are, once again, particularly vulnerable to violence by their family members. ‘Violence that has been suffered is not forgotten and it’s repeated on the children of those who suffered it. It is like a circle that is constantly reproduced.’”

8. Health

“Lack of fluency in the language of the host country can be a serious obstacle to health care. In the absence of sufficient medical interpreters, children are often requested to interpret, because they learn the language of the host country faster than their parents. It may be embarrassing for mothers and fathers to talk of sexual and reproductive health issues in front of their children. Lack of interpretation also prevents many families from receiving trauma counselling.”

9.  Sanitary materials

“Lack of sanitary materials is still a major problem for the majority of refugee women and girls. This is usually due to lack of funding. In some sites, no sanitary materials are available at all and in others their quantity and quality are insufficient. Many women supplied with reusable sanitary materials do not have enough soap or a bucket in which to wash them.

Lack of sanitary materials prevents some women and girls from leaving their house during menstruation, causing girls to miss school and preventing women from working, attending meetings or doing other daily activities.  It is also a problem that causes great shame. Women injured by rape and older women also requested incontinence pads.”

10. Legal issues

“Lack of legal protection was a major concern in all dialogues…. In refugee contexts, camp justice systems are generally mistrusted. They are run by powerful men in the communities and very few women are represented. The judgments of camp justice systems are often detrimental to women. Women reported cases in which women were incarcerated after they were raped whereas the perpetrators walked free. Men are often fined insignificant sums for serious abuses, or not prosecuted at all.”

The UNHCR Dialogue format and process was developed in cooperation with the Centre for Refugee Research, UNSW, which held a similar consultation process with refugee women recently resettled into Australia in 2010.  In the Australian Dialogue, key recommendations centered around support to enable refugee women to gain employment; English language training and support; childcare support (while refugee women re-education, job reskill, and learn English); heightening awareness of the risk of sexual and other forms of violence that women face even after arrival in Australia; improving access to information on legal rights and responsibilities in Australia for women, men and children; and strengthening education on how cultural differences may affect successful interventions in areas of child protection, domestic violence and youth issues.

What both Dialogues reveal is that women in situations of displacement are vulnerable but incredibly strong and resourceful.  Resettlement countries such as Australia have not done enough to ensure that refugee women’s resourcefulness and strength is understood, encouraged, respected and rewarded.  Until refugee women are given more opportunity to share their stories with the Australian public, public dialogue will continue to be framed by unfounded suppositions and prejudices, which only further limit opportunities for refugee women.

A constant critique of ‘irregular’ asylum seekers in Australia is that they arrived by ‘illegitimate’ or ‘illegal’ means.  The myth perpetuated here is that those who arrive with no papers/passports are inherently suspicious.  However, in conditions of war, unrest and situations where ethnic minorities are targeted by violence, access to birth certificates and passports is often practically impossible.  Seeking such papers is dangerous.  Women and their children often have no financial means or right to access such papers in many countries in the first place.  This increases their vulnerability when they have to flee and the lack of documentation is often a reason why people will seek out people smugglers – because they facilitate the satisfaction of desperate need for escape that is not available through any other means.

Refugee camps are not pleasant places to live, especially for women.  The longer you live in a camp the higher risk you and your children have of rape, poor education, poor healthcare and no means of financial independence.  If a refugee camp is dominated by particular ethnic or political groups or located in an area where police and local authorities are not sympathetic to your plight, then your access to international organizations will be incredibly hard.  In this situation, getting out of such a camp may be the bravest thing that you and your family can do to ensure survival and safety.

Refugee women want to work and earn a wage for their work; they want education for their children.  Education is a primary source of gender empowerment for women in developed and developing countries. The social and economic empowerment of refugee women directly benefits the immediate recipient, her family and the next generation.

Women make up over 50% of global displaced population.  They are often in sole charge of children, elderly members of family and responsible for the daily struggle to find water, food and shelter for their family. In Australia, we hear little from refugee women about their experiences of detention, resettlement and living in Australia.

As a result, we assume much but know little about the women we see arriving by boat and plane to seek asylum in Australia.   We need to hear their stories more to drown out the ignorant suppositions of others

Sara Davies, Human Protection Hub.

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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