Women, the Most Vulnerable of All Refugees
Refugee Women

Article written by: Natasha Xagorari, Panteion University, Athens, Greece

Violence against women has always existed throughout centuries.  Gender-based violence and sexual violence are frequent in environments where respect for human rights, education and democracy is low. According to the World Health Organization, recent global research indicates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.

But what about refugee women? Once they leave their dangerous homelands, are they safer in the countries where they seek  refuge? The answer is no, at the drop of a hat!

First of all, what is the definition of violence against women? The first internationally agreed definition was introduced in 1993 by the “United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women” and states that: “violence against women’ means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life” (Article 1).

Furthermore, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published “Sexual Violence against Women: Guidelines on Prevention and Response” in 1995. By that time, it had become clear that it was about time to act and protect refugee women from any kind of discrimination, violence, atrocity, harassment, humiliation. Furthermore, the Council of Europe decided to promote the protection of women against violence (and domestic violence) through a initiative, knows as “Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” – “Istanbul Convention”. This convention was signed on May 11th, 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey and came into force on 1 August 2014. The Istanbul Convention has specific measures in protection of migrant women and women asylum seekers[1].

Types of gender-based and sexual violence include: 

-sexual violence:  rape and marital rape, sexual abuse, forced prostitution, sexual harassment, sexual violence as a war of weapon and torture

-physical violence: trafficking/ slavery, beating, burning, maiming or killing

-emotional and psychological violence: abuse/ humiliation like insulting or denying the basic expenses for family survival

-harmful traditional practices: female genital mutilation (FGM), forced sterilization,forced or early marriage, infanticide, killing or torture a woman to preserve the honor of the family

-socio-economic violence: limited access to services, education, in a decent job. Denial of access to rights as: civil, social, political, culture, economic rights[2]

Refugee women have to face various challenges related to their position in society, their roles and their gender.  Women and girls are exposed to greater dangers than men and boys and they often do not even have access to fundamental rights such as the right to dignity, equality, freedom, solidarity. Very often violence is the main reason why women decide to immigrate and they sometimes find themselves having to face the same problem once again when they are forced to marry fellow immigrants or are forced to engage in sexual relationships with border guards or smugglers in order to reach their destinations.

The following situations are some of the most common scenarios in which violence against women has been reported:

Violence during conflict and prior flight: Women can be abused by persons of authority or security forces, kidnapped by armed members in a conflict. The goal of the systematic use of violence is to terrorize, humiliate and fragment the human condition. 

Violence during their journey: Women, who pay smugglers to take them out of their countries, might be exposed to violence or other abuse during their journey. They might be raped, being sold in black market also known as “The Natasha trade”, to wit, the transnational shadow market of trafficking in women. According to an European Parliament’s study[3], the majority of women who suffer from domestic violence are also victims of trafficking.

Exposure to harassment or abuse by persons of authority: in many countries has been reported police violence against women migrants, who try to reach European countries and start a new decent life far from wars and conflicts.

Violence or abuse in reception centers: women who are not accompanied, lone females heads of household might be at risk if they are not separated from men, or if they don’t exist efficient guards.

Violence in the country of asylum: Due to the past history of violence, stereotypes, lower level of education, the feelings of helplessness, the psychological trauma of displacement and of course the lack of acknowledge of national and international law that can protect them, women are usual victims of sexual assault. Often violence is caused by the members of the family or a known person. Sexual attacks may occur in front of their families, while women are doing chores or if they visit isolated areas.

These forms of violence both sexual and gender-based might lead to life threatening health outcomes such as: suicide, shock, sexual diseases, eating or mental disorders, sleeping difficulties, limited mobility, unwanted pregnancy and depression. They could also lead to alcohol or drug abuse and of course affect the psychology of children. 

To prevent the brutalities against refugee women the international community should support those women in their attempt to gain a new life, promote gender equality, develop country level strategies to prevent sexual violence against those women, ensure better conditions for women in camps, support women that are victims of domestic violence, provide them access to services, ensure women’s participation in the distribution of food and medicines. There are plenty more initiatives that all countries and non-governmental organizations could undertake in order to help refugee women and make them feel safe in a unfamiliar country.

Let us not forget that human rights are universal, are for both men and women regardless of their color, their nationality, their beliefs, their culture, their customs, their age. All people should enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms. World governments should work together to protect and foster these fundamental rights. All people should get involved to bring about real change and save women, girls, children and everyone from this monstrosity.

[1] For more info: Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – Istanbul Convention

[2] http://www.unicef.org/emerg/files/gl_sgbv03.pdf Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons- Guidelines for Prevention and Response, May 2003 by UNHCR

[3]  “Access to shelters of undocumented migrant women fleeing domestic violence: the legal and practical situation in Member states” http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2013/493027/IPOL-FEMM_ET(2013)493027_EN.pdf