Women make up half of all people affected by displacement. They are mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends and grandmothers. And across nationality, age, and culture, they have one thing in common: an increased risk of abuse, discrimination, and having to give up their education and dreams for the future.
When war or conflict strike, women’s lives and their familial roles are often turned upside down. Before having to flee, they may have been responsible for the home and the family, with their husband taking care of finances and practical matters outside the home. That reality changes radically if the man is killed, imprisoned, or severely wounded, leaving many women to flee their homes alone, assuming all responsibility for finances, security, health, and the future and well-being of their children.
These responsibilities also include some unbearable decisions – such as whether to leave their children alone at home so they can go out and work, or to let the children work instead of going to school. These awful decisions are part of a grinding daily struggle – the struggle to raise money for rent, food, clothing, health services, schooling, and more.
Despite the many difficulties, women who have become refugees or displaced are finding the strength to create new lives for themselves and make the most of their challenging situations.
Women fleeing their homes, run a frighteningly high risk of rape and other forms of violence and abuse. According to a report 2018 from the Mixed Migration Centre under DRC Danish Refugee Council, almost half of all women on the run are subjected to some form of abuse. This includes rape, robbery, kidnapping, bribery and other forms of abuse. Even when women and girls reach a source of help, they remain vulnerable. In a refugee camp, everyday tasks like fetching water or going to the toilet can pose an intolerable risk of rape or harassment. When becoming a refugee or internally displaced, women and girl’s dreams of education and careers often fall by the wayside, replaced by an impoverished life of domestic duties and childcare - and for some even forced marriage and early pregnancy.
Sexual assaults against refugee women affect the victims for the rest of their lives. Beyond the mental and physical injuries sustained, women may be left with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Medical care is often limited or absent for women on the move, and this includes livesaving support during pregnancy and birth. This lack of care can lead to illness, disability, and even death.
In addition to the consequences for their mental and physical health, women victims of sexual abuse may find themselves stigmatized and rejected by their family and community.
In the first six months of 2020 alone, nine massacres were recorded in the areas of Djugu and Mahagi in DR Congo's Ituri province. The atrocities were accompanied by continuous attacks, ambushes, and lootings carried out by the numerous armed groups operating in the area. With the technical and financial support of EU Humanitarian Aid, DRC was able to help communities develop coping strategies and start rebuilding their lives.
The risk of being raped or kidnapped has forced many Nigerian teenage girls to flee. With support from DRC, many of the girls now provide for themselves and their families and avoid exposing themselves to great risks in order to survive.
The best way to help women and girls who have become refugees or displaced is through education. Girls miss out on school and education at much higher rates than boys when war and conflict force a family to flee, and only half as many refugee girls as boys will continue their educations beyond elementary school. The further the education, the greater the level of inequality you find.
Loss and deprivation of rights presents another huge challenge for refugee women and girls. Often, the loss of rights is linked to women losing or being unable to access vital documents like birth certificates, marriage certificates, and proof of citizenship. Without these, access to medical care, food, housing, and the labour market can be difficult or even impossible.
Women on the move also get their period
Women affected by displacement generally suffer from major health challenges. On their escape routes and in refugee camps, there is often minimal access to basic hygiene products such as bandages, tampons, and underwear, meaning women are forced to use whatever they can find: leaves, dirty rags, or even pieces of old mattresses. This can cause serious problems, including infections and associated complications.
For some girls and women menstruation itself is a source of stigmatization, which may discourage them from going to school and receiving an education.
For DRC Danish Refugee Council, it is crucial that women and girls always have a seat at the table when politicians and organizations make decisions that will affect them. To do this, we first must ensure that their basic needs are met.
Aisha, internally displaced and bee-keeper, Syria
However, if the situation of refugee women and girls is to be radically improved, it is not enough to just help the women. Information and support must be made available at a wider level, to transform the structures and perceptions that keep women in vulnerable and disempowered situations. This is why educating communities, including men, on women's fundamental rights is another key part of our work supporting women and girls.
Building a new life after displacement is hard. Aisha tells how her beloved bees helped her stand on her feet again, and how she tries to be a female role model for her daughters.
The idea feels magnificently ordinary – even mundane. It is something that we see and experience almost every day. But for women living inside refugee camps, it is a reminder of what life back home used to be like.
The violent and protracted insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has left thousands of women as single breadwinners. Many live with severe disabilities as a result of violence and abuse. Salamatu is one of those women who, against all odds but with hard work and only a bit of help, has lifted herself and her children out of poverty.