The challenges of being a female refugee

Recently I came across an article on Irin Humanitarian News and Analysis (http://www.irinnews.org/report/97260/ ) about the woman in this photo. Mahasa of South SudanHer name is Mahasa. The 29 year old South Sudanese woman fled her home with her four children leaving her husband behind. She says that she is scared of the harassment, exploitation, violence and the fear that she faces and worries that she will not be able to provide for her family.

Her experience is not unique, so I want to draw attention to the issues which affect female refugees. Many women, like Mahasa, flee alone; others flee with a family but find themselves in a new environment with many people they may not be able to trust. Regardless of whether they flee alone or in a group, many women become the victims of discrimination, sexual exploitation, rape and human trafficking and also are given few opportunities for education and dignity. Furthermore maternal and reproductive health is often neglected. Although these issues are far from ignored globally, there is a long way to go until they are resolved.

One thing which bought attention to the problems faced by refugee women was the 2000 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. It highlighted the unique challenges faced by women in armed conflicts and as refugees. It also highlight the important role women have to play in conflict resolution and peace-building. More recently, Resolution 2106 has drawn attention to the continued sexual violence against women. This resolution has encouraged further political, economic and social empowerment to women and recommended a greater focus on assisting men to avoid taking part in or allowing sexual violence.

Despite such acknowledgment of female refugee issues, refugee women continue to face violence. There are clearly many hurdles still to face. Fundamentally, women are rarely consulted on the governance of refugee camps and instead are kept in situations which make them more vulnerable to violence and health problems. These situations include collecting water or firewood which takes women away from the safety of their family and friends and exposes them to the risks of violence. Many refugee camps also have a large amount of the agricultural work undertaken by women. These women could instead be raising their children, pursuing other work opportunities or attending school.

Specific action was taken at the Doro camp where Mahasa stays with the deployment of a UN task force which set up a post rape health clinic and encouraged women to talk about their experiences whist discouraging men from instigating the violence. It also helped to empower women with income generation and language training programs. Furthermore education on conserving firewood aims to decrease the likelihood of women being exposed to violence by decreasing their need to collect firewood.

Such a holistic approach should be encouraged. Ultimately, the health and safety of refugee women involves many factors, but if these factors are addressed, women can be empowered.

Edmund McGrath

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