Is Refugee Experience Gendered in Nature

By Shucheesmita Simonti

Image result for female refugee
Photo Credit: AP / Santi Palacios

Global News: Female Refugees endure sexual violence and exploitation
I've seen mothers and children really being vulnerable in the refugee camps; it's supposed to be temporary, but they end up having children who have grown up in refugee camps. Alek Wek

According to literature generated by scholars and field practitioners, refugee experiences are gendered in nature as women often face challenges that men in the camp would not, and in many situations, the refugee men are the privileged ones in the camp as they have the authority to practice power and dominance over women. Asha Hans (2012) reflected: 
―From a woman‘s perspective, the home and homeland converge as both are political spaces. The home has always been linked to women‘s bodies where the boundaries are set by the patriarch. The homeland then is the expanded 'home' where boundaries are again set by the patriarch-the state. They are dominated and controlled by the patriarch at home and the dominant majority within the state. For women, life is a political battle within the home and society and in the camps to this binary is added to the state…. Gendering takes place as per local socio-cultural environment and women‘s positioning within it….

Furthermore, Hans (2012) describes the camps as gendered spaces where the geography and infrastructure often lead to increased vulnerability for women and advocates the need to acknowledge and address this issue: ―One needs to deconstruct the geography and the sociology of the camps to fully understand the gendered nature of displacement and the resultant trauma‖. Issues such as lack of sanitation, latrines being located in dark and on one end of the camps also often lead women to being sexually assaulted while they venture out, especially at night, to avail of these facilities. 

Likewise, Gawher Nayeem Wahra (1994), a development practitioner based in Bangladesh observed from his work with Rohingya refugees that gender-issues are often neglected while designing programs, and that gender-component is largely ignored. Most of the time the aid workers were men who worked in collaboration with leaders, or Majhis, who were mostly male; and attempts to improve the situation of women refugees were often resisted. 

Chaloka Beyani (1995) stressed that it is important to incorporate a gendered perspective into existing human rights framework as the specific abuses and challenges faced by refugee women are often limited to women only, and thus gendered in nature: 

―The violent break-down of order removes social and institutional safeguards and protective structures of society, thereby exposing women to most barbaric forms of unrestrained male behavior. Women seeking refugee status in their own right and not in association with their husbands, fathers, brothers or uncles, are often subject to sexual demands in return for refugee status. Women who breach refugee camp regulations in certain circumstances are offered sex by male camp officials in lieu of punishment.

Rita Manchanda (2004) argued that often aid programmes end up assisting in recreating the ―local patriarchy as the aid workers, in their attempts to gain the trust and support of leaders of the community, who are mostly men, end up transferring the power to them and let them dictate and influence the implementation of the aid programme. 
As a result, the re-establishment of local patriarchy of the homeland denies the refugee women from benefitting from these aid programmes, even if they are in a host country where women in general are empowered and have the right to work, to receive education and to receive justice if faced with violence or discrimination.
UNHCR (1991)‘s Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women acknowledges the gendered dimensions of refugee experience and advocates that: 

―….international protection of refugee women must be understood in its widest sense. Refugee women who are vulnerable 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. 

Refugee women who are detained among strangers and/or where traditional social protection systems no longer exist, will face greater dangers than those living among family and friends. Refugee women who must bribe guards to obtain firewood, water or other essential goods will be more susceptible in sexual harassment. Moreover, refugee women who formerly had a means of expressing their views in the community may find themselves unable to do so in the camp management committees established by assistance organization.

The guidelines prepared by UNHCR are thorough and provide solution for a number of gendered problems. 

This article is extracted from the Research paper titled 'Gender Based Violence and Subsequent Safety Challenges experienced by Rohingya Women'  in Chapter 3 of the Safety Report by SAFIGI Foundation 'Safety First for Girls'.

The Safety Report by SAFIGI is a two-fold Open research on 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The first part of the Safety Report is a Research Paper. The second part is a detailed Data Analysis. 

The Safety Report Research paper is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The paper starts with an abstract before focusing on subjects in the key regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A total of 7 Research papers make up the safety Report (sans the introduction and conclusion), including:

  1. The psychological effect of mass sexual harassment on girls in Egypt (P.24) by Heba Elasiouty.
  2. Safety concerns in relation to social media: Growing up female in an increasingly digital world (P.45) by Karin Temperley.
  3. Psychosocial challenges faced by parents raising children with physical disabilities in Oshana region (P.68) by Misumbi Shikaputo.
  4. Gender-based violence and subsequent safety challenges experienced by Rohingya women (P.119) by Shucheesmita Simonti.
  5. LGBT policies and overall safety in Brazil (P.141) by Alinne Lopes Gomes.
  6. Silent voices‘: Violence against the female body as consequence of machismo culture (P.177)  by Steffica Warwick.
  7. America‘s Public Policy on Sexuality: The Repression of Girls in Vulnerable Populations (P.208) by Dr. Christina Sisti.

SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a volunteer-based and youth led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented the Safety Report in order to understand the multifaceted concept of safety and how it applies to the female gender in diverse settings. And therefore, further prove safety is intrinsic, and that vices in society stem from an intimate level of the human being before its manifestation. This way, when we create safety solutions, whether it be in a developing nation, conflict zone, refugee camp, or patriarchal society, the problem is resolved from a deeply rooted cause. Such that, we treat the disease itself and not mere symptoms.

This study is as a result of collaborative effort pursued in the spirit of volunteerism via UN Online Volunteers.


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