UNHCR Rings Alarm, Says Sexual Violence against Internally Displaced Women, Girls Worsening Globally

Akanimo Sampson

Akanimo Sampson

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN refugee agency, says 20 per cent of refugee or internally displaced women have faced sexual violence, and the situation continues to worsen globally.

The amount of forcibly displaced people has reached a staggering number—nearly 80 million according to UNHCR—and the number only continues to increase.

Women refugees and internally displaced women suffer from marginalisation, sexual and gender-based violence, and child marriage.

Some experience sexual and gender-based violence as they flee conflict. In camps or due to poverty, some women and girls may be kidnapped, trafficked, or forced into marriage.

In fact, nine out of 10 continues with the highest rates of child marriage in fragile contexts, long-ingrained gender norms pressure girls into vulnerable situations. And as coronavirus constraints trap many women and girls with their abusers, domestic abuse has seen a spike.

The world has experienced political, social, and cultural upheaval unmatched by any other period in history. Continuous conflict compounded with the economic impacts of coronavirus in South Sudan and Syria has forced hundreds of millions out of their homes and into a world without healthcare or social support systems.

After more than a year of struggle through COVID-19, refugees and displaced people are facing more challenges than ever—especially women and girls. Ethnic tensions, political strife, famine, climate change, and terrorism continue to uproot lives.

As inequality gaps widen and displacement increases, it’s up to us to invest in providing the opportunities and services to support women refugees during this time and as they rebuild.

In the crowded camps where refugees and displaced people live, coronavirus poses a disproportionately large risk. Overcrowding makes social distancing a challenge that can fuel the spread of disease.

Camps like the ones in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee settlement, can have six times the population density of New York City.

On top of this, inadequate sanitation and disruptions in humanitarian aid compound fragile health conditions for refugees. In May, the United Kingdom cut their aid budget for Rohingya refugees by 40%. 

Refugees who found work or had small businesses find themselves without income due to continued lockdowns and these cuts. With savings drying up, many find themselves pushed into poverty.

There are 6.2 million people displaced within Syria. Nearly 70% of this population is women and children, now forced into surrounding areas, some in camps where resources are scarce and weather conditions harsh.

In places like Syria, where women had been making advances in gender equality, disease and displacement threaten that progress.

UNHCR reports that of the 79.5 million people who have been forced into displacement, over half are women and girls. Women are often the first responders when crisis hits yet their voices are often left out of policies and that are designed to protect them.

In addition to poverty and other issues that all refugees may face, women refugees have an added layer of oppression from gender discrimination.

Contrary to the myth that refugees are unskilled and uneducated, many of them have much to contribute. While some refugees might have never had the chance to gain formal education, many are highly educated and highly skilled.

Many refugees face barriers to inclusion in local economies, which makes finding stability for their families a challenge. egative economic impacts related to coronavirus strictures have made finances harder.

For women refugees, the barriers are even higher as gender discrimination closes doors or leads to lower pay. Yet if we invested in economic opportunities for women refugees, we could help close gaps in poverty, gender equality, and inclusive work – all while helping economies on a local and global scale.

Throughout the years, Women for Women International has been able to witness firsthand the dangers and obstacles faced by refugees. They have barely escaped war, and many refugee women face threats of gender-based sexual violence and early marriage in their pursuit of safety.

‘’We invest in the power of women refugees to rebuild their lives, their families, and their communities. We have expanded our program to help more women forcibly displaced by conflict and connect them to life-changing resources, skills, knowledge, and connections. Women have the power to transform their own lives and our world, to make it better for everyone.

‘’And as health crises combine with conflict, we know that women survivors of war need our support now more than ever’’, says the women group.

UNHCR is however concerned with safeguarding the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee. Together with partners and communities, it works to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country. It also strives to secure lasting solutions.

On the 30th anniversary of the campaign for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the UN agency said that there’s been a global surge in domestic violence, child marriages, trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse since March.

“A lethal mix of confinement, deepening poverty and economic duress is unleashing a renewed wave of violence against refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls”, UNHCR said in a statement.

Grassroots solutions

To tackle the crisis, the UN agency has called for funding to be scaled up for grassroots projects that focus on prevention and helping victims of gender-based violence.

These include the Myanmar Ethnic Women (’s) Refugee Organisation where refugee women have joined forces to overcome abuse, reinforcing their role as strong protectors of their families and communities.

For victim Deborah, who lives in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, violence against women at home was considered a family problem.

“I felt ashamed to share my experience with other people,” she said. “I was afraid they would say it was my fault.”

Through her work with the community-based organization, Deborah met other women suffering in silence, and when she was invited to help devise and lead a project to support refugee women affected by gender-based violence (GBV), she accepted.

UNHCR highlighted that the need for such local, refugee-led projects has become even greater during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns have taken away refugees’ often precarious livelihoods, heightening tensions in households and making it more difficult for international agencies to deliver support services.

UNHCR issued the alert after recording increases in gender-based violence in at least 27 countries.

In the Central African Republic it warned that one gender-based violence incident is recorded every hour.

And in Colombia, similar incidents affecting Venezuelan refugees and migrants have increased by 40 per cent over the first three- quarters of the year, the agency noted.

The financial stress of COVID-19 and a lack of food in households during the pandemic has put women at greater risk from violence at the hands of their partners, UNHCR reported.

This is the case on the Thai-Myanmar border, where refugee women who were already running support services and safe houses for survivors of gender-based violence asked the UN agency for funding, to provide food to families who had lost work owing to the pandemic’s economic impact.

Reaffirming its own commitment to addressing gender-based violence across its operations, UNHCR launched an institution-wide policy on GBV prevention, risk mitigation and response, in October.

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