TW: Sexual Violence, Rape, War and Violence
At Our Streets Now, our focus is the criminalisation of street harassment., one of the most widespread displays of misogyny in our society. But sexism is a global issue and the manifestation of this in lawless societies needs to be more widely recognised and combatted. Greater knowledge of this issue will help people understand the magnitude of sexism and how it is rooted in the course of development humanity has followed. In other words, misogyny needs to be addressed at its roots for us to have a chance of eliminating it.
Refugee camps are largely lawless societies within which there are significant and horrific problems stemming from sexism. With more conflict and environmental issues, the number of people put at risk is increasing. When refugees are spoken about in Western media they are lumped together as ‘others’ and described as numbers with individual stories ignored. By distancing ourselves, we are convinced it could never happen to ‘us’. This strips refugees of their human identity, dreams, ideas, and emotions, and prevents us from recognising that the sexism that affects us also puts them at risk. They are trying to survive, and don’t have time or energy to combat sexism. The concept is that help is needed for basic survival, which is true, but this means less obvious issues, such as sexism, are put on the back burner. For sustainable change, the issue of sexism needs to be given equal weight and consideration within these societies.
Sexism is a global problem. There are too many areas where women do not leave their homes alone for fear of the high risk of being sexually assaulted or abducted. When people are displaced, they are forced into this high-risk environment often with even less legal or social support and protection as these structures deteriorate, becoming hugely vulnerable. Today there are approximately 59.5 million refugees worldwide, half of which are women and girls. This is a significant issue in territories taken over by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. In many of these places, those in power punish women to demonstrate their dominance and assert authority. These violations include kidnappings, slavery, forced marriage, assaults, and rape.
As we know gender inequality exists in pretty much all societies, this is exacerbated in situations of crisis. The danger female refugees face comes from all angles, even those who are supposed to be there to protect them: military and security forces, border security, humanitarian staff, immigration officers, and even other refugees. In camps, women are at high risk of assault, with many of the expected legal restraints and behavioural norms dissolve in such environments. This means women are subjected to assaults performed by individuals, groups or gangs within which members are protected by the self-appointed power of these informal leaders. Indirectly or directly this despicable behaviour is effectively promoted. Women with nowhere to turn are forced into survival decisions, having to enter themselves or their daughters into ‘protection marriages’ to avoid assaults. Due to increased pressures, perceived emasculation, and the frustrations of camp life, even married female refugees are highly likely to experience violence from within the family.
There are policies in place and international laws that should protect these women who have already suffered so much but this is often not implemented as a matter of priority. Women are protected from assaults under International Human Rights law, and, more specifically under CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). States are obligated to protect women, including refugees, and ensure they are not subjected to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” (UN). This norm is not extended to refugee camps. Too many countries and international organisations are failing our women. We are letting violations happen which teach the victims that their well-being and freedom are not seen as important and that they are alone and unsupported when they are most in need. It teaches the perpetrators that they are not accountable for violating the human rights of another. This reaffirms the belief on both sides that the value of the man is higher than the woman, therefore, the concept of human rights only covers men.
Any assaults carried out by military forces or humanitarian staff add an extra layer of oppression and degradation for the victims. The nature of crimes against women are often sexual in this environment. Approximately 20% of female refugees are sexually assaulted, causing trauma and health issues that can lead to unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and even death, not to mention the act itself being a gruesome violation of the victim’s personal freedoms and basic human rights. In camps, access to support for victims is limited, let alone achieving justice.
How do we expect to build a stable society on this absurd foundation? Despite global events proving time and time again that human rights need to be prioritised to promote stable and long-lasting change, we continue to ignore them. The existing laws need to be implemented effectively through proactive discussions and cooperation between not only those on the front line but also international organisations and governments. Solutions have been offered but only as recommendations that are not legally binding. For example, the 2000 UNSC Resolution, which suggested a diversification of peacekeepers, and military and police personnel, or the 2008 UNHCR handbook which stated the need for greater implementation of codes of conduct and additional training to prevent and respond to assault. Few recommendations have been put into effect.
This is ridiculous; international law for signatory states becomes part of their legal system, often having priority and under this, refugees are entitled to free access to courts of law within the territory of contracting states alongside their basic human rights. There are no legal barriers to gender equality for refugees only social ones, in which the legal help is inaccessible to those who need it most. The issue in many camps is the lack of legal administrative staff to support victims and provide a prevention mechanism. Effective and thorough education of all personnel involved is also necessary, not only to understand their duty to these women but also to recognise signs and understand how to support victims. Finally, educating refugees with regular talks given in their own languages through select camp members about their rights and where and how to seek help is vital.
This issue also extends to lack of education for children in camps. There is significant lack for all children, but boys’ education is often prioritised, exacerbating inequalities. This isn’t only an issue of equality but also an economic one. It is estimated that global GDP could increase by $1.4 trillion through the contributions of refugee women (UNHCR). The way that refugees are stereotyped and represented in the media demotes them to unskilled helpless people, which is, of course, far from reality. Refugees are human beings with skills, ideas, and dreams, and need to be treated as such. Between 2012 and 2013 only 0.4% of funding for fragile states by the UN went to women’s groups or ministries showing a lack of priority.
It’s all well and good having international laws that protect us, but this means nothing without effective implementation. You protect all of us or you protect none of us. If nothing is done sexism will be used as the foundation of yet again more societies in the futre. This is not sustainable. Unless fundamental beliefs are changed there is little hope. What do you think the constant catcalling, the gender pay gap, and sexist terminology would manifest into if the implementation of our existing laws was removed? Women have the right to freedom under international law and everyone, especially our most vulnerable, should be treated with respect. Furthermore, women’s voices should contribute to policies, especially the ones designed to protect us. Policymakers need all the help they can get. Sources: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/women.html https://unu.edu/publications/articles/protecting-female-refugees-against-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-in-camps.html https://www.womenforwomen.org/blogs/5-facts-about-what-refugee-women-face https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/women-refugees-and-migrants https://www.unhcr.org/uk/events/campaigns/5fc126314/protecting-the-rights-of-refugee-women.html
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Madeline Trudgian (She/Her)
Politics and international relations student at the University of Nottingham, intersectional feminist and blog writer for Our Streets Now. Passionate about women's education globally as a powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy.
Cover art courtesy of @sas.mei on Instagram