Displaced women are particularly vulnerable

Article, 06.03.2018

Over 30 million women and girls worldwide have been displaced. On the occasion of International Women's Day on 8 March, gender specialist Ursula Keller explains the specific risks faced by female refugees and what the SDC is doing to help them.

A woman in a refugee camp hangs laundry between two tents. Two children are standing next to her, with snow on the ground.
Displaced women like this Syrian mother with her children face particularly serious challenges. © SDC

Ursula Keller, to mark International Women's Day on 8 March 2018, you will host an event entitled 'Women in Displacement' (see link at the end of the interview). What specific dangers and challenges do displaced women face?

People forced to flee their homes by war, violence, political oppression or natural disasters literally lose the ground from under their feet – regardless of their sex. But displaced women are particularly vulnerable in terms of personal safety, basic needs and livelihood. Women often become victims of sexual violence, especially in war situations. They are also more vulnerable to domestic violence because men who are no longer able to fulfil their role as family protectors and breadwinners often vent their frustrations through violence. In addition, they face risks that are specific to refugee camps, including inadequate lighting, restricted mobility and a lack of privacy in sanitary facilities. In African camps, women and children often have to walk long distances to gather firewood, exposing themselves to additional risks.

You mentioned basic needs. To what extent are female refugees discriminated against in this respect?

In an unsafe environment, it is even harder for women to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare and education. For example, pregnant women and mothers with infants often do not receive adequate medical care, which is why there are high maternal mortality rates in refugee situations. School attendance is often also compromised because schools in refugee camps or host countries don't provide separate toilets for boys and girls. Many parents don't want to send daughters above a certain age to school because of social norms or because they fear for their safety. This has serious consequences, considering that the average length of displacement for refugees is 17 years – almost a generation!

And what are the economic consequences of displacement for women?

They differ very widely. In the context of the Syrian crisis, for example, we have seen a marked increase in early and forced marriages, with families marrying off young daughters to older men for economic reasons. Young women in particular also risk prostitution and human trafficking. Displaced women often also take on new roles, with a double and triple burden: when men are absent, women have to earn an income in addition to shouldering the traditional responsibilities of raising children and running the household. But new roles can also enhance women's status and open up other opportunities for them.

Ursula Keller, SDC gender specialist.
Ursula Keller, SDC gender specialist. © SDC

Displaced women face multiple challenges. What is the SDC doing to help them?

We are for example providing emergency humanitarian aid in Bangladesh, a country that has taken in over 680,000 men, women and children from neighbouring Myanmar since September 2017. The SDC is working to ensure that the refugee camps are a safe environment for women, with separate, well-lit toilets and shower facilities for men and women. The SDC also ensures that women are given due consideration in food distribution and medical care. We also support psychosocial services such as counselling for traumatised women because many of them have experienced terrible suffering: forced displacement, sexual violence or the loss of family members.

What kind of long-term support are you providing?

We also attach great importance to long-term support. In refugee camps that have existed for some time, such as in Kenya, we train women in skills they can use to earn money. For example, they learn to repair computers, mobile phones or even cars, and can take sewing and dressmaking courses. It's important that we succeed in enabling women to leave the role of victim behind and take responsibility for their lives. Also worth mentioning are Switzerland's international efforts to protect refugees and migrants, which specifically focus on women's concerns – currently for instance in the context of the Global Compact for Migration.

At the end of the day, what is the SDC trying to achieve?

Our primary aim is quite simple: saving lives and ensuring women's security. We also provide thousands of women in a particularly difficult stage of their lives with social and economic opportunities to get back on their feet, either in the host country or after they have returned to their own country. This includes being able to provide for themselves and their children and ensuring that children can attend school. It is essential that we prevent a whole generation of refugee children from being deprived of an education – because those who lack an education are most at risk of spreading violence in the future.