by Virginia Ottolina
It is not easy to travel to a foreign land alone: new faces, a different culture and unfamiliar language are only a few of the difficulties one must overcome when traveling abroad. But as a tourist, a traveler knows what she’s getting herself into as there is adequate time to prepare including reading up on the chosen destination, looking up maps, videos and maybe even taking a language course.
Yet, once alone in a bus, plane or a train, there is a lingering fear of the unknown: the insecurity and vulnerability when exposed to all the threats and thrills of the voyage.
However, a refugee has little choice as to where to travel, and little possibility to get information about the country before the trip and often, even to prepare for a new destination. Refugees that have to travel to a foreign country not only do not choose their trip, fear and trepidation in the new setting are amplified by fear for their own security. Today, this is the dreadful reality for 42.5 million people in the world.
“No one wants to carry the name of refugee,” said Napuli Paul Langa, a Sudanese refugee who spoke at the United Nations in Vienna in November to illustrate what being a refugee means.
Women are at an acute disadvantage, as forced displacement has a strong effect of disempowering them. Women and girls in most countries where aid missions are present, carry another type of vulnerability, facing challenges related to their gender as well as their roles and position in society.
Women are often vulnerable in these situations, and have less access to even the most fundamental of their rights, including their right to education, health care, shelter and documentation. Often, they are not even aware of their rights and they have fewer opportunities to interact with the authorities and seek protection. In societies of many developing countries, it is difficult for them to have a say in family decisions, and when they are forced to flee their homeland due to war or other dangers, their position is even more difficult to defend.
Responsible for children, the elderly and domestic work, these women are overburdened and they are often excluded from decision-making processes in their families and societies. Therefore, they cannot express their opinion about decisions affecting their lives, including whether to flee their country, to return or to integrate in a new society.
The promise of humanitarian assistance has encouraged many affected families to flee their country and search protection in refugee camps or elsewhere. The reality is that many refugee camps leave women and girls vulnerable to violent attacks. Camps that appeared to be safe havens often cannot offer real protection to mothers and daughters who live in fear of sexual assault. Relegated to the domestic sphere, they don’t have direct access to basic necessities, as they may be too busy fulfilling their responsibilities towards children and the elderly.
Maban County in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State is a particularly compelling example. Women escaping the fighting between government forces and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, face daily threats of harassment, exploitation and violation. On top of that, they are burdened by the fear that, as women, they won’t be able to provide for their families. In this region, camps are spread across large areas, and women have to walk long distances to access food distribution points and then carry heavy ration bags back to their tents. The second option to access food is to wait for the men to go collect it. In both cases, they risk being sexually assaulted, either on the way to collect food, or in the camp where they are left to wait alone. Another duty that women have towards the family is collecting firewood. Not only is this hard work, but it is also extremely dangerous, as members of the host community often attack women refugees or harass them.
“We will be out of it sooner or later, but we live in a refugee camp where the reality is, women are raped,” Aisha, a 32-year-old refugee who lives in a refugee camp with her nine children told the Guardian. “If they go get firewood they are raped. And they are attacked at night and held at gunpoint. Every family that has a nine year-old girl will hide them at night so that they can be safe.”
The UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls suggests the only way to prevent human rights violations is to combine a rights-based approach with a community-based approach. The legal framework is an important starting point, however, it cannot suffice to guarantee real protection to female refugees.
The rights-based approach integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into policies, programs and actions of actors such as the UNHCR and states. What has been lacking so far is the strengthening of a community-based approach as an inclusive partnership that requires attitudinal shifts to stress the fact that refugees are not passive recipients of humanitarian aid, but “rights-holders” with legal entitlements.
Organizations taking care of refugees should support people demanding what they are entitled to and take into consideration the different needs that women have. These two approaches are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and it is time for the international community to take action. Refugees carry this vulnerability associated with the fear for their lives, and women are even more vulnerable due to their gender. Violations of refugee’s rights and security are perpetrated daily, while they wait for the international community to act.