Refugee crisis: where are the safe havens for women?

In the last two weeks, groups of ordinary people across Europe have declared ‘refugees welcome here’, and called on their governments to do more. But the particular problems faced by women are still going unacknowledged, and where policies do exist, there is a crisis of implementation. Women deserve better, says Jackie Turner.

Over recent months there has been increased media attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people attempting the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy or overcrowded boats. Many have no doubt paid a premium to unscrupulous smugglers; others will have fallen victim to people traffickers ready and willing to exploit their desperate need to flee war zones and other hostile and violent conditions at home. The media attention is welcome. It has exposed a serious humanitarian crisis although, regrettably, it has also exposed an EU leadership in disarray. Search and rescue missions are scaled down, and then scaled back up. Governments bicker about who is bearing the brunt of the financial burden and where these thousands of displaced people should go. There is ready conflation of refugees and migrants, people smugglers and human traffickers.

Even so, something is missing from all the coverage. What remains largely unreported and is absent from most policy responses is the particular plight of women and girls.

There is nothing new in this. Women are regularly written out of history or relegated to the footnotes; this despite decades of international, regional and national laws intended to promote the human rights of women. Violence against women, in particular, is acknowledged to be a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Yet amidst the extensive media reports of hardships at sea and the appalling loss of life, representations of women are few and far between, their voices rarely heard and their stories even more rarely told. Nor are they attracting much government attention.

Yet the women fleeing violence at home do not leave that violence behind them. It travels with them right up to and into countries of destination. And very often this is gender-based violence: violence against women because they are women. Such violence is all too prevalent in times of peace: domestic violence, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lives lived in the shadow of ‘honour’. In times of war violence against women, including rape and other sexualised violence, increases exponentially. It is an ever-present reality, in their homes, in refugee camps, during travel, at staging posts and in countries of destination.

Migration is a particularly hazardous undertaking for women, yet even here they are often hidden populations, viewed as a residual category of those ‘left behind’, or those crossing borders as dependent family members. Such notions do little to capture the complexities of women’s lives, the push factors which drive them from their homes, and the extent of the dangers and the dangerous masculinities they face every step of the way.

In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that almost four of every five people who have fled Syria in the last three years are women and children. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (2014) many end up in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, but many more live outside of formal camps. Here, social norms place restrictions on women’s mobility, leaving them less able to access humanitarian aid or engage in economically fruitful activity. If and when they do find paid work, they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers, just as they are vulnerable to sexual predation by landlords who demand more than rent if women are to keep a roof over their heads and the heads of their children. Sexual harassment means that mothers are afraid to send their daughters to school, resulting in girls being deprived of education. Yet women and girls in formal camps scarcely fare better. Sexual harassment and exploitation is again commonplace where women and girls are forced to exchange sex for aid, or where collecting water or visiting latrines is fraught with the dangers of sexual assault and rape.

Conflicts elsewhere in the region or in North and sub-Saharan Africa have forced countless more women from their homes, compelling them to embark on hazardous dessert and sea crossings. Here, the boat trip from Libya to Europe is just one more of the numerous dangers they face as they flee the armed conflicts in which they are held hostage to power struggles among men. Yet during flight they are confronted with other dangerous men and with the dangerous masculinities which dominate the trade in women. However much or little money they have is extorted, they may be sold en route, or forced to sell sex to pay for the next stage of the journey, while also facing gang- and multiple rape by fellow travellers and the men they have paid to secure their passage. There is invariably little food and water and certainly no safe and equal system for distributing what few resources are available. Pregnancy offers no protection against this violence and many women give birth to babies which result from rape.

These atrocities have been well documented by international NGOs and by UN bodies in current and previous wars. The international community is well aware of the disproportionate burdens women bear in armed conflicts and of the escalation of physical and sexual violence against them. It expressly gave voice to this in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. Since then there have been a number of further related UN Security Council Resolutions and international events such as the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in which participating states vowed to ‘strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. In 2012, the former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) with the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. The campaign aims to address the culture of impunity, prosecute more perpetrators and ensure better support services for survivors through greater international cooperation, and by increasing political will and the capacity of states to do more. It was followed in 2013 with the adoption by G8 Foreign Ministers of the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, subsequently endorsed by 155 countries. The Declaration recognises that violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality between women and men. It commits to offering no safe haven to perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war zones.

But what of safe havens for women? For those who do make it to the shores of Italy, some end up hidden away in detention centres. There, as Lauren Wolfe of the Women’s Media Centre, documents in her blog of 24 July 2015, these ‘missing women’ are illegally detained, often for weeks or even months with access to only the most basic levels of care and medical help. There is no sign of ‘better support services’ for these survivors, who have been traumatised by their experiences of violence and by the violence and deaths they have been forced to witness. Other women, living beyond the walls of detention centres, are often left with little choice but to engage in what the UN calls ‘survival sex’, while others again are forced into prostitution by their traffickers. Family members may be held hostage while women are required to sell sex to pay off debts accumulated during journeys to Europe but which, in fact, are never paid off. Women who had no choice but to face dangerous men and masculinities in countries of origin and in transit, are still having to contend with dangerous men and masculinities in countries of destination.

Women who come to the UK fare no better. Here, they face a tough and complex asylum regime which systematically discriminates against them, as Caroline Criado-Perez details in her new book ‘Do It Like A Woman – And Change the World’. Their stories of trauma, risk and threats are met with a ‘culture of disbelief’ among Home Office decision-makers. Even those who are eventually given asylum face an uncertain future. Leave to remain is frequently granted only for short, fixed terms and can be reviewed at any time. An early morning knock on the door, the sudden removal to a detention centre and brutal deportation are constant threats and realities for many women and their children.

For several decades now we have had international treaties, conventions, platforms for action, resolutions, directives, initiatives and campaigns to combat and prevent violence against women. But still it continues unabated, with no sign of any abatement in the culture of impunity which affords men their safe havens. The international community has long faced a crisis of implementation when it comes to taking effective and decisive action to end violence against women. The three pillars of Security Council Resolution 1325 – protection, participation and prevention – have a particularly hollow ring. But dangerous men and dangerous masculinities are not products of armed conflicts. Violence against women in times of war cannot be addressed without addressing violence against women in times of peace.

The time for rhetoric and lip service has long passed. Women facing and fleeing violence across the world deserve better. They cannot continue to be relegated to the ranks of ‘the missing’ or absent from media and policy debates. Their voices and their stories must be heard and the international community, as well as individual governments, must confront this crisis of implementation. It is time to stop passing paper laws and resolutions and, instead, to act with resolve. The crisis in the Mediterranian is a humanitarian crisis but it is also a gendered crisis. It is time to move from ‘aims’ to concrete actions. It is time to demand greater international cooperation and increased political will and it is time to demand safe havens for women.