Why we need to know more about refugee women

by 28th Mar 2017
Refugees in a temporary camp in Adasevci, Serbia, prepare to eat a meal provided by CARE’s partner organisation NSHC Refugees in a temporary camp in Adasevci, Serbia, prepare to eat a meal provided by CARE’s partner organisation NSHC

The plight of refugee women both in Europe and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region has been largely ignored, characterised by a lack of information and lost in the broader sweep of the humanitarian disaster. This won’t be the first time in history women’s issues were side-lined in light of a bigger cause.

The American civil rights movement, for instance, broadly failed to address gender specific inequality in case it detracted from the fight for racial equality. When fighting for the rights to dignity of all refugees, we must not lose sight of the gender-specific difficulties of refugee women. This neglect is reflected in a lack of clarity and sex-disaggregated statistics, which makes adequately addressing the gender-specific needs of refugees much more difficult for aid groups.

Women refugees head households, manage family finances, and are responsible for the well-being of several dependents. Women and girls make up the majority of refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan, and yet issues which affect women and girls are inadequately addressed. De-homogenising Syrian women refugees is crucial: single women traveling alone, female-headed households, pregnant women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied minors and women with disabilities all make up the total number of female refugees, and all these sub-groups have specific needs of their own.

What we do know

Though very little statistical information on refugee women is available, those statistics that are accessible indicate the depths of indignity, fear and violence that vulnerable women face in their journeys to safety.

  • Sexual and gender-based violence: GBV in refugee camps, though also under-reported, remains a key concern for vulnerable women with justified fears of rape and other forms of GBV, with one in four cases reported being sexual violence.
  • Early and forced marriage: statistics on early and forced marriage amongst the Syrian refugee community in Jordan, for instance, indicate the extent of the trend. In 2013, of the 2,936 registered marriages of Syrians in Jordan, approximately 25% involved a Syrian child between the ages of 15-17 and the majority of these children are girls. Refugee camps are woefully under-equipped and over-subscribed, and are unable to provide adequate support to vulnerable girls getting married at a young age.
  • Sexual and reproductive health: the use of contraceptives amongst vulnerable Syrian women has dropped from pre-civil war rates in Syria, which used to be in the region of 60%, to only 34% amongst refugee women in Lebanon. Less than 70% of Syrian women refugees surveyed have any knowledge of family planning and how it can be accessed, demonstrating a widening information gap which speaks to a lack of awareness amongst Syrian women in Lebanon.
  • Safety in host countries: in a study conducted by the IRC that interviewed 135 female heads of household taking refuge in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, approximately half of participants left the house less in their host country than when they were living in Syria, as well as reporting feeling isolated and imprisoned in their own homes. Further, 60% of women expressed feelings of insecurity, and one in three women stated that they felt too scared or overwhelmed to leave their homes at all, often a result of refugee women living in insecure and temporary housing with poor security.
  • Upon entry to Europe: the difficulties and fears that plague refugee women and girls in their passage to safety persist long after reaching Europe, and are often compounded. The Guardian recently published testimonies of rape and abuse from within the Dunkirk refugee camp, and the Women’s Refugee Commission has documented the harmful impact of the EU-Turkey deal on the safety of refugee women as well as their access to secure and hygienic sanitation facilities at European detention centres.

What we don’t know and why

It is ironic that many of the reports on women refugees begin with an admission of their limitations, a product of disjointed numbers or estimates in place of rigorous statistics. Though this is part of a broader recurrent issue of shoddy data collection across humanitarian aid, when it comes to gender and disaggregated information it is thrown into even starker relief.  According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, there is an alarming lack of data at the national level on the extent of violence against women and girls who have recently arrived or are in need of international protection.

The methodological difficulties in obtaining statistics about sexual violence are inherent to the nature of the issue: it is entrenched in stigma, and often such crimes are not reported to data collectors in fragile contexts where socio-cultural norms place the onus of shame on victims, not perpetrators. An equally significant obstacle is the marginalisation of GBV provision in emergency contexts, where other interventions such as shelter and WASH are considered immediate priorities, when in fact they should be tackled alongside one another.

A majority of refugees live in countries where there are poor local statistics, which makes contextualising the position of refugees in such settings even more difficult. In Lebanon, for instance, there has not been a national census since 1932 due to the politicised nature of sectarian tensions, and no updated frame of apartments/dwellings in over a decade, which affects our understanding of the gaps in housing provision for refugees.

The situation in Europe, however, is no better and is in some ways worse. As refugee women disperse throughout the continent it is much more difficult to gather statistics than in highly concentrated camps such as those in Jordan or Lebanon. There is a lack of quantitative on-the-ground analysis in favour of qualitative interview and testimony gathering, such as Jane Freedman’s article documenting the various forms of sexual and gender-based violence experienced by women refugees based on qualitative research carried out in Greece (Kos), Serbia (Belgrade) and France (Paris and Calais area). Though this type of research has many merits, it lacks the macro-scale overview that accurate quantitative statistics give and which can reveal developing patterns in GBV or maternal health.

Our responsibility

INGOs, governments and aid organisations have a responsibility to produce policies guided by truth. Until we know enough about refugee women and the perils they face travelling across continents and hostile contexts, we cannot help effectively. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people on earth, suffering from trauma and loss of livelihood.

This vulnerability, however, must not be conflated with weakness and a lack of agency. CARE’s recently published report, She is a Humanitarian, highlights powerful women operating on the frontlines as first responders in fragile and crisis- affected communities, despite a lack of recognition and funding. Nobody understands better than them the obstacles women must overcome in times of conflict or emergency, and giving them the necessary tools for this is the most important contribution that can be made. Funding stems from recognition and information, and if this gaping hole is not addressed the challenges refugee women face on the road to safety will go on being silently endured and unnoticed.

Maja Bayyoud

Maja was formerly an intern with the CARE International UK policy and advocacy team. Maja is completing an MSc in Conflict Studies at the LSE, and has previously studied International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. She has worked as a Refugees Welcome coordinator at Citizens UK, supporting refugee resettlement in Tower Hamlets. Maja is passionate about women's economic empowerment, as well as the study of civil war and the impact of domestic conflict on women.

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