On International Women's Day, I attended 'Frauen und Flucht: Vulnerabilität – Empowerment – Teilhabe', an event which gave a platform for grassroots female refugee initiatives to discuss ways in which we can start to prioritize refugee women's voices more within the wider refugee discourse.
On March the 8th, I saw a lot of women walking around holding red roses (at first I was confused before guessing it had something to do with IWD), and later on, as I walked along Kottbusser Damm, I encountered the International Women's Day March itself- banners with empowering slogans waved proudly in the air, papier mache vaginas floated in the breeze, voices boomed from megaphones and music pumped from speakers. I turned down Lenaustrasse feeling pleased that I had witnessed the march, and invigorated for tonight's event. I arrived at Refugio, the community space for refugees, and host for "Women and Flight: Vulnerability, Empowerment and Participation"- an extremely appropriate event, given the important date, and the wider cultural context of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
We are currently seeing a wave of female voices speaking up against sexual harassment, sexual violence and discrimination, creating a ripple of change which is challenging entrenched misogyny, disrupting patriarchal structures and empowering millions of women worldwide. However, despite the positivity of online movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, and their grassroots origins, these campaigns struggle to extend beyond the screen and across all continents. Whilst we are seeing some systemic improvements in the West as a result of #MeToo, and ofcourse, things such as workplace harrassment and the gender pay gap are categorically unacceptable, for millions of women living in the developing world, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Refugee women, in particular, are one of the most vulnerable and underrepresented female sub-groups: They suffer all of the indignity and trauma that every single refugee faces, but on top of that, they must also live with the additional layer of cultural and religious restrictions associated with their gender, and a variety of extreme physical safety issues. And yet, the depth and breadth of their collective vulnerability is inversely proportionate to the amount of specialized care and attention they receive.
"Today, 50 per cent of the world's refugees are women and girls . Yet, only 4 per cent of projects in UN inter-agency appeals were targeted at women and girls in 2014, and just 0.4 per cent of all funding to fragile states went to women’s groups or women’s ministries from 2012 to 2013" - Fast Facts, UN Women
Many women in flight will experience a plethora of psychologically and physically harmful acts in their lifetime, including during their journey, and after they reach the 'safety' of refugee camps. These include things such as rape, FGM, beatings, familial or marital violence, under-age marriage, underage pregnancy and unsafe abortions, and a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.
In times of conflict and unrest, a woman's personal safety is put even more at risk: They are extremely likely to be raped, beaten, or abducted by armed militia, or taken and sold into slavery by human traffickers, who take advantage of the general chaos. In extreme cases of poverty, families will sell their own daughters into slavery in order to get enough food to eat, or girls will voluntarily turn to prostitution to support themselves and their families. These practices frequently occur in refugee camps, which are extremely dangerous places for women to live. Even going to collect water or firewood is hazardous, and many women are raped when they are out in search of supplies. Feminine sanitation provisions in refugee camps are pitiful, with women at a huge risk of contracting infections associated with poor hygiene, and in constant fear of privacy invasion- there sometimes aren't even locks on the toilet doors.
Aside from the physical dangers, young women and girls are often prevented from attending school (in part due to their family's concern that they might get raped and become "damaged goods"), and also because families wish them to stay at home to take care of the household. In extremely impoverished households girls are married off at a very young age- at least 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married annually. Once married, their husbands often prevent them from continuing their education, creating a cycle of early-age pregnancy and loss of economic autonomy, resulting in dramatically reduced life chances.
Despite reaching the relative safety of their host country, gender inequality and gender-based violence remains an issue within migrant communities. Despite the stability and rule of law of their host state, refugee women remain incredibly vulnerable to practices such as FGM, honor killings and forced marriage. Without adequate representation or support, they remain isolated, unable to access the education, social care and legal rights that they are entitled to.
Many refugee women are unable to learn the language of their new country, in part, due to pressing family commitments and a lack of child-care provision, and sometimes, due to illiteracy. This has a debilitating effect on their ability to integrate- they are left isolated within the domestic sphere and unable to fully participate in public life, or receive the necessary training that would allow them to join the workforce. This has the effect of muting their voices within refugee discourse.
Thankfully, this is slowly changing, with large-scale research projects such as the UNHCR's 'Resettlement and Women-at-Risk: Can the Risk Be Reduced?' raising awareness for women with flight experience, and community schemes which female self-empowerment and autonomy. A wonderful example of this is the group 'Yegna', an Ethiopian all-girl band which is raising nationwide awareness of child marriage, sexual violence, and the importance of education, through their music.
As well as community projects, official UNHCR guidelines have also been issued on how to interpret the current Refugee Convention in a gender-sensitive way. Importantly, this includes the clarification of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Declaration, which cites persecution due to "membership of a social group" as grounds for claiming asylum, and acknowledges 'gender' as a legitimate subgroup:
".. a particular social group is a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted, or who are perceived as a group by society. The characteristic will often be one which is innate, unchangeable, or which is otherwise fundamental to identity, conscience or the exercise of one’s human rights."
- UNHCR, 'Social Group Guidelines (11)'
Gender can be categorized as a social sub-group within the context of Article 1A as this relates to the perception of that group within a particular society, and the resulting persecution they experience due to their membership of said group- a membership which they cannot change because the characteristics by which they are defined as part of that group are 'innate and immutable'- e.g because of your gender, religion or sexual orientation.
This crucial evolution of the legal interpretation of the Refugee Convention was referenced by keynote speaker, Armaghan Naghipour, from 'Lawyers without Borders'. In her powerful speech, Naghipour talked at length about the justice and logic of this interpretation- and whilst in some countries it is still not acknowledged or applied consistently- this represents a truly progressive step in the campaign for refugee women's rights. By recognizing gender as a social category, this effectively means that all women who come from countries where gender-based persecution takes place automatically have a legitimate claim to asylum.
Aside from the legal development of refugee women's rights, a huge part of the progress we are seeing for refugee women's inclusion and equal representation is down to grassroots community projects, such as the ones present at 'Frauen und Flucht'.
Organisations such as, BALANCE a charitable family planning centre; 'Women for Common Spaces', a community of Arabic-speaking exiled women; Flamingo e.V, a network for empowering single refugee women, and reuniting them with their family; LouLou, a self-help refugee community group; and POINT, a project which supports refugee women by offering them advice, courses, and help with entering the workplace; all play a crucial part in supporting refugee women on the ground.
A supportive legal framework is very important- but the difference a community group or meetup can make to a refugee woman's life is immediate and invaluable. What separates the top-down, versus bottom-up approach to tackling gender inequality and GBV, is the way in which it incorporates, or doesn't incorporate, the voices of refugee women themselves. Whilst both are crucial, what is particularly important about female-led grassroots movements is the autonomy and power it gives refugee women to directly shape the discourse- they make the decisions, they choose the agenda, they choose how they are represented.
"The important role of refugee and asylum-seeking women has been recognised by the UNHCR at the heart of the solutions to the crisis around the world today, as women are not passive recipients of assistance but productive and resilient subjects if they receive the support they need and are treated as active and dynamic participants" - UNHCR, 2001)
I realise the irony of that last sentence, given the fact that I am speaking for refugee women when I myself have no flight experience, however my point still stands that grassroots community programs and social support networks, led by refugee women, for refugee women, are crucial in ensuring lasting social change. It was heartwarming to see this basic idealogy shine through at last night's event- let's keep campaigning for more platforms for female refugee voices, and funding to support these vital grassroots projects!
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