During and after an internal or interstate armed conflict, refugees are inevitably produced. The world’s refugee population continues to increase with the escalation of state actors and paramilitary groups all struggling for resource hegemony and military and economic dominance. People who become displaced and seek refuge from these conflicts are victims known as refugees. While refugees are victims of conflicts, their refugee status can further victimize them.
The victimization of displaced persons is most common for refugee women and children, especially young girls. In refugee camps, women face a very different threat than men. Women face the threat of sexual violence. Therefore, women require specific forms of protection that are “both physical and legal” (Karame, 2002, p. 118). Since refugee women and children are more vulnerable to additional victimization, some questions need to be raised as to why they are more vulnerable than refugee adult males and what can be done to prevent additional victimization during and after armed conflicts. Because of physical, religious, and cultural factors, “women are disproportionately affected” (Wilson, 2004, p. 549) as refugees. Many times help is not received for refugee women, because they see overcrowded camps as dangerous. Many refugee women are also ashamed to ask for help due to cultural stigmas (UNIFEM, 2002, p. 47).
Societies in which females are discriminated against are more likely to suffer from gender based violence during and after a conflict (Leatherman, 2011, p.4). Refugee women are victimized by gender specific violence among state and non-state actors in armed conflict and aid workers in refugee camps and the country of asylum. For many refugee women, there are few safe places to seek refuge, especially when they are not protected by an adult male relative. Refugee women are also victimized by state policies. Since the majority of those in authority are adult males, creating protection legislation for refugees has historically lacked a gender perspective. Therefore, state policies are not geared toward providing refugee women with the special requirements they need so that refugee women are not further victimized by their status.
Since “women and children compromise almost three-fourths of refugees worldwide” (Levy, 2008, p. 200) it is imperative that progress be made in dealing with gender sensitive issues among refugee communities. Although women and children in refugee communities have traditionally made up the majority, their majority was not formally recognized as a problem until recently. Since the victimization of refugee women has gained official recognition by the international community, much progress has been made in finding solutions to alleviate additional victimization for refugee women.
In many refugee communities, such as Afghan refugees in Iran, women take on the responsibility of educator. Afghan women in Iran organized their homes into unofficial schools (Chatty, 2010, p. 139). Most of these schools are for girls, who like many non-Western refugee females, have found little opportunities for education in their countries of asylum. Historically, women in most parts of the world have not been as educated as men due to culture and social discrimination. Women are therefore more likely to be heavily dependent on their male relatives for reading, writing, and other skills developed from education (Levy, 2008, p.195). This can make the refugee experience even more problematic for women.
Like the need for Afghan refugee all-girl schools, the need was equally great for Sahrawi refugees. In a predominately female Sahrawi refugee camp, known as the February 27th camp, two all-girl schools were set up between 1978 and 1989 (Chatty, 2010 p. 55). The creation of the schools relieved refugee women from having to take on the role of sole educator, which meant better education for girls and less hardship for Sahrawi women. Prior to the opening of the schools, girls were educated in the refugee camp in a similar organizational structure used by Afghan refugee women in Iran.
Columbia, like many African and Central Asian countries, is experiencing an increase in the population of refugee women within its slum communities. The difference between the domestic policies of Columbia and other countries, like Iran, is that Columbia’s domestic policies further victimize refugee women by increasing the difficulty of displaced women to move into slums, in order to seek refuge, and gain access to government employment (Vlachovia & Biason, 2005, p. 170). Columbia also refuses to provide aid to its displaced citizens, unless they can show legal documents proving their citizenship (Vlachovia & Biason, 2005, p. 178).
These type of state policies further victimize women by coercing them to seek refuge and aid from a non-governmental organization (NGO). Many refugee women have difficulty gaining access to their identification papers because some cultures place husbands and fathers in charge of maintaining family documents. Since becoming a refugee often happens without warning, people do not always have the ability to prepare their personal documents when seeking refuge is the primary concern.
Women and men experience traumatic events with significant difference. A study found that women were four-hundred percent more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men (Wilson & Drozdek, 2004, p. 550). Other studies found that refugee women are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and suicide than refugee men (Wilson & Drozdek, 2004, p. 551). A woman’s “physical and mental health” are much more likely to deteriorate during “prolonged stays in refugee camps” in non-Western countries (Wilson & Drozdek, 2004, p. 554). This can be attributed to factors such as the inadequate care in non-Western camps and that women, in non-Western countries, hold more social and family responsibilities than those in Western countries.
Refugee women have a very difficult time readjusting to their regular life, and an even more difficult time adjusting if those women are also forced to assimilate to an alien culture. Many refugee women struggle with feeling secure in their surroundings and doubt they will ever feel safe again (Pulvirenti & Mason, 2011, p. 46). PTSD among refugee women is an issue not generally emphasized. Because of this, there are very few care-providers trained to deal with the millions of refugee women suffering from PTSD.
While men often undergo sexual violence as a means of humiliation, it is most common among women. Sexual violence towards refugee women takes on many different forms, such as: genital mutilation, rape, forced miscarriage, pregnancy, and verbal abuse. As many as 80% of female refugees who have accepted treatment for violence “had been sexually tortured” (Veer, 1992, p. 232). Afghan women make up the largest percentage of refugees in the world today. Most of them live in Pakistan and Iran (Leatherman, 2011, p. 42). Many of these Afghan women become victims of abduction for prostitution and forced marriage (Leatherman, 2011, p. 53).
Sexual violence towards women in time of conflict passes through all barriers of time, place, and culture. In Nazi Germany some women were used as sex slaves for the pleasure of both Nazi soldiers and concentration camp prisoners. It was believed that camp prisoners would increase productivity if they had access to brothels (Leatherman, 2011, p. 52). Sexual violence against refugee women is often used as “a tool or strategy of war” (Leatherman, 2011, p. 9). Unfortunately, it is often used to humiliate an enemy, as retribution, and as cause for conflict escalation (Leatherman, 2011, p. 9). Although sexual violence against refugee women is pervasive, some progress has been made. In 1996 a European Parliament Resolution recognized that the use of sexual violence “as a weapon of war” is “a form of torture” (Feller, 2002, p. 43).
Another weapon of war being used is death by virus. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been used as a weapon of war against refugee women in Rwanda and the Congo region. The use of HIV as a weapon of war chiefly affects the female population. It is used with the hope of the disease spreading to their husbands and the community. This “weapon” has been used as a form of genocide in some African refugee camps (UNIFEM, 2002, p. 48).
Yet, even in the supposed security of refugee camps, women are still faced with the possibility of sexual violence. For example, in the refugee camps of Sierra Leone and Sudan, refugee women are at risk of victimization if they are not accompanied by a male relative. The possibility of armed conflict spilling over into refugee camps, where security is often lax, increases victimization of female refugees. Such was the case at an internal displaced persons camp in Darfur, Sudan (Leatherman, 2011, p. 102-103).
Refugee women in camps and conflict zones also face victimization by those who are sent to protect them, the peace-keepers and aid workers. Some of the men sent to protect the most vulnerable persons use their power of position to receive sexual favors. Such was the case in a study performed by Save the Children, an international NGO. The study “found a systematic pattern of sexual abuse and exploitation of children as young as 6 years of age” (Leatherman, 2011, p. 104-105).
Refugee women who have undergone sexual violence are likely to suffer from a number of short-term and long-term physical and psychological problems. Physiological problems can range from anxiety and guilt to depression and delusion. The psychological effects of sexual violence depend on the severity of the crime and the culture in which the victim belongs. Some cultures will ostracize victims, leading to further victimization; while other cultures will embrace the victim. Physical effects of sexual violence can be as mild as headaches, or as severe as the inability of reproduction (Veer, 1992, p. 232-233).
Since women make up the majority of the adult population of refugee camps, and often take on the role of primary family in refugee camps, their security should be viewed as security for the entire camp (Karame, 2002, p. 116). This is why the international community has recently given attention to the victimization of refugee women.
The turning point for refugee women was in 1985, at a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) conference in Nairobi, Kenya. At the conference, the UNHCR formally recognized that the majority of refugees are females, a noteworthy starting point for refugee rights groups around the world. The conference also housed hundreds of NGOs that had come to hold workshops and seminars on the status of refugee women (Baines, 2002, p. 63). After the Nairobi conference, the late 1980s saw significant progress in awareness for refugee women; as NGOs from around the world, many having met at the Nairobi conference, began to collaborate and disseminate their research. These NGOs included prominent groups like International Working Group on Refugee Women (IWGRW), Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (WCRWC), and Refugee Women in Development (Ref/WID) (Baines, 2002, p. 65-66). In recent years, some NGOs supporting human rights and gender equality, like IWGRW, have made it their mission to hold states responsible for providing sufficient care to refugee women (Baines, 2002, p. 64).
The first step to ensuring that refugee and displaced women are protected from gender- based threats and discrimination is to have larger institutions formally recognized that these problems exist. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been working on resolutions to help the situation. Specificlly, Resolution 1325 recognizes these problems, and goes a step further by urging member nations to follow the solutions provided within the resolution (UNIFEM, 2002, p. 44). Prior to Resolution 1325 being ratified in 2000, the biggest problem in identifying the victimization of refugee women was the fact that in 1951 there were no female dignitaries selected to help write the Refugee Convention for UNHCR. The fact that that women did not help write the Refugee Convention meant that the document lacked gender perspective.
However, norms throughout the world have changed since 1951, and women are now helping to shape refugee policy. Important steps for creating solutions to alleviate victimization of refugee women can be seen throughout Resolution 1325. Resolution 1325 expresses and emphasizes that women make up the majority of displaced persons, and that actors in a conflict must have women in roles of providing refuge and aid to refugee women and girls, so that their gender-specific needs will be taken into account (UNSCR 1325, 2000, p. 96). Resolution 1325 also urges nations to expand funding for programs dealing with gender-senstive issues that arise among the refugee population (UNSCR 1325, 2000, p. 97). Furthermore, the resolution suggests that member nations “adopt a gender perspective” when addressing refugee issues (UNSCR 1325, 2000, p. 98). The ability to apply a gender perspective to refugee legislation can only be achieved if more women take on the roles of asylum and aid facilitators.
However, UNHCR has limited means by which it can operate. The institution cannot make a state enforce actions to assist refugee women; it can only pressure states and provide assistance to those states accepting refugee women. One refugee woman, showing frustration and concern about her status, is quoted by UNHCR as saying, “We are second-class citizens when it comes to food, water and shelter distribution. We remain the world’s invisible refugees” (Vlachova & Biason, 2005, p. 173). NGOs and human rights activists must continue to pressure the governments of the world to create more safety nets for refugee women, so that no refugee is invisible.
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