Women in a refugee camp in Sudan
Women in a refugee camp in Sudan

Every March 8, the world celebrates International Women's Day, commemorating the achievements and emancipation of women. Of the tens of millions of refugees and migrants worldwide, a significant proportion are women, with their own unique experiences and stories.

The origins of International Women's Day are contested, but many believe that its founder is Theresa Malkiel, a refugee who fled to the US after experiencing anti-semitic violence in her home country of Russia in 1891. More than a hundred years later, refugee and migrant women have much to celebrate, but they also face enormous challenges.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says "women and girls make up 50 percent of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population."

Read the UNHCR's statement on International Women's Day: http://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2018/3/5a9eaea04/statement-filippo-grandi-united-nations-high-comm...

Women refugees today face particular challenges and dangers. More often than men, they are subject to harassment, sexual violence and exploitation by traffickers and others during their journey.

Sexual assault and violence against refugee women has reached high levels in migrant camps on Europe's borders and elsewhere. There have been many reports in recent months of refugee women in camps being assaulted and raped.

Sex trafficking of refugee women is also common, particularly during a migration journey. The United Nations Human Rights organization said that in 2016 "there is evidence of Syrian refugee women and girls being trafficked for sexual exploitation through the practice of “temporary” or forced or early marriages to Jordanians and men from the Gulf countries." 

The International Organization for Migration has also reported that Nigerian woman and girls have been exploited as sex slaves on their journey to Italy, with the IOM stating that 80 percent of Nigerian women who went to Italy in 2016 had been sexually exploited.

"Refugee women who are unable to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their children will be more vulnerable to manipulation and to physical and sexual abuse in order to obtain such necessities," the UNHCR, said in its 1991 Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women.

Refugee women face also particular health concerns within refugee camps and on their journeys. If medical care is insufficient, complications may make childbirth for pregnant refugee woman more dangerous. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other forms of mental illness may also be untreated in refugee women, with a lack of mental health care specialists available.

Committed to change

A large number of organizations are engaged in improving the lives of migrant and refugee women. They include CARE, the Melissa Network, Amnesty International and Women Refugee Route. The largest international body tackling refugee women's rights is the UNHCR. The agency identifies five commitments to refugee women. They include: documentation and registering all refugee women; economically empowering refugee women; and prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence.

Read more here:   http://www.refworld.org/docid/479f3b2a2.html

The international medical aid organization Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) also focuses on the specific needs of refugee women. According to MSF, there are an estimated 32 million women displaced worldwide. The MSF helps refugee women with basic health care needs in five areas: "obstetric care, family planning, safe abortion care, sexual violence care, and mental healthcare." In its report titled "I'm a woman," published for international women's day, MSF refers to the establishment of a mental health facility in Jordan and provision of a women's shelter for victims of sexual violence on the refugee vessel the Aquarius.

Read full article here: https://www.msf.ie/article/because-im-woman

Much more to be done

The European Network of Migrant Women in Europe, an umbrella organization representing migrant women, has called for more attention to be given to the voices and concerns of women in the development of policy on migration and refugees. The Network refers to the Global Compact on Refugees, which is currently being discussed at an intergovernmental level, and argues that states must fulfil their obligations to upholding the rights of female refugees.


More articles