Half of all people fleeing conflict are women, but their plight is often ignored in our approach to refugee crises, writes Irene Zugasti.
The commotion caused by the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne, when organised gangs of men sexually assaulted and mugged women across the city, has brought to light the problem of sexual violence against women.
This kind of violence, a dramatic consequence of unequal power relations, is exercised worldwide. Think of the thousands of gang rape cases registered in India, or not so far afield, the statistics of the last survey of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, which found that 11 % of women have experienced some form of sexual violence during their lives.
The Cologne attacks, seen as attacks carried out by Arabs against European victims, have served to stoke up again the heated debate over refugee policies in Germany and in the whole of Europe. Meanwhile, refugee women remain silent, invisible, minimised. But they well know how sexual violence – among many other forms of violence against women – rises dramatically during the entire migration process. Bringing to light their reality is essential to recognising the multiple faces and victims of this problem.
When Donald Trump spoke about the refugee crisis at a campaign rally in October, he said, “If you look at migration, it’s young, strong men.” He probably hadn’t checked the latest statistics regarding gender in refugee flows worldwide: the number of refugees of concern to the UNHCR in mid-2014 stood at 13 million, and 49% were women. Therefore, it seems proper to say that about half of all refugees, internally displaced or stateless people and asylum seekers who live away from their homes are women.
On 25 November, the European Commission released a Joint Statement in the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, highlighting the growing numbers of women seeking refuge or asylum in the EU. At any rate, as the analyst on Gender and Communication from Complutense University, Tamara Bueno, said of the image of refugee women in media, “the greater the humanitarian crisis, usually the less concerned [the media is] with delving into the information from a gender perspective”. The specific problems refugees are facing due to their gender are lost in a retrieval system that focuses homogeneously on the emergency of the entire group.
The particular vulnerability of refugee women is a fact of enormous importance, which cannot be limited to the transit process. In fact, situations of violence experienced in the home country may be their main reason for seeking asylum. Armed clashes serve to exacerbate discrimination and violence against women, as happens in regions like Sinjar (Iraq) where torture and sexual slavery by Islamic State forces made women’s lives unbearable. Nevertheless, such violations are often perpetrated against women in peacetime, as testified by the thousands of women who leave Guatemala every year for fear of attack. A woman is killed every 12 hours in Guatemala; the highest rate of femicide in the world.
The guidelines issued by UNHCR regarding the criteria for granting refugee status due to gender-based violence exposes cultural and religious practices as main causes of violence, which is certainly true in Nigeria with Boko Haram. The same is true of honour crimes, forced marriage (often meaning early marriage), female genital mutilation, forced sterilisation, domestic violence, sex trafficking or persecution due to gender identity or sexual orientation.
Many of these manifestations of violence seem uncommon for European society and its institutions, but they are starting to move from the margins to the core, increasing the need to articulate new public policies to combat them. In fact, the European Institute for Gender Equality estimated that 180,000 women are at risk of FGM every year in the EU, and 9,000 women and girls who have undergone FGM seek asylum in Europe.
“When they were asked about the violence suffered during their trip,” said Bueno, who recently released the documentary No Existimos, “in most cases they answered that in their eagerness to escape, many had fallen into networks of trafficking, so in their arrival countries the consequences remain, suffering various traumas and illnesses, both on a physical and psychological level.” Bueno highlighted that Eurostat data shows that the percentage of women arriving at their final destination it is much lower than for men. Where have they gone?
Trafficking is one of the main threats to be faced while crossing the so-called “transit zones”. The second most lucrative business worldwide earns special benefits thanks to the vulnerability of refugee women on their way, capturing them through coercion or kidnap by smugglers and slave traders. Sex trafficking, the main axis of the transnational criminal economy, has struck a rich new vein of raw material in the flow of refugee women in regions like Central America or Eastern Europe.
Moreover, women living in refugee camps rarely escape from violence. On the contrary, the scarcity of resources due to infrastructure saturation hinders the development of measures for the female population at risk. A problem that becomes structural for those born in the camps, who have never been outside the wire, as in Tindouf or Kenya.
Nowadays, more migrants and refugees are arriving in Europe than ever recorded before. The EU should integrate a gender perspective to its management of this crisis. Visibility of this reality is essential, and public awareness should overcome the newsworthiness criteria exclusively attached to the present. Violence against refugee women must be addressed by public policy makers focusing on the main actors involved in the whole process: asylum officials, health and community workers, civil society organisations, to go beyond the traditional view of the asylum seeker as male.
It is necessary to empower women as active participants in all aspects of conflict management, especially towards the development of comprehensive measures for prevention and action against sexual and gender violence inside camps and in transit and destination communities across Europe. Our treatment of those who have suffered hate and violence must serve as a benchmark to inspire the longest journey of all: life.