When Women and Girls are Displaced

When war and conflict forces families into a life of displacement, girls and women are the most vulnerable. Not because women are somehow unable to survive or manage themselves, but because they, as women, are at greater risk of being abused and deprived of their rights.

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.

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Lana and Heba are ambitious girls despite growing up knowing nothing but a refugee camp. Lana dreams of becoming a teacher.

DRC, Jordan

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Teenage girls play football during psyko-social support session at a DRC safe space for women in Nigeria.

DRC, Nigeria

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Internally displaced women at DRC reception center. When a drought plagued large areas of Somalia in 2017, women with children of all ages walked for days to seek help, as the men stayed back to tend to their lands.

DRC, Somalia

For women and girls, displacement requires great strength 

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.

Gender based violence have severe consequences

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.

Read more about child marriages

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.

Education for refugee girls is the best way forward

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.

How we assist women and girls on the move

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.

“I no longer have to worry about my children. The project has allowed us to go back to having a normal life”

Aisha, internally displaced and bee-keeper, Syria

DRC assists women and girls affected by displacement

  • provide professional training and education to ensure the ability of displaced women to earn their own income
  • enable girls to attend school
  • provide protection services
  • establish and run safe areas for women in often-insecure camp environments
  • illuminate toilet facilities in refugee camps to reduce the risk of abuses perpetrated at night
  • offer legal counselling
  • offer advocacy that enables women to regain and access their rights
  • provide hygiene kits

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.