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Internally displaced women: social rupture and political voice

Displacement is social as well as geographical. Women’s welfare and survival depends significantly on their social relationships; displacement destroys this resource.

Internal displacement, North Kivu, DRC. Photo: Authors Internal displacement, North Kivu, DRC. Photo: AuthorsDisplacement is at its highest level since records have been kept - over 60 million people world-wide are currently displaced from their homes and communities. Most media and popular attention in the developed world is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis which has produced 4.8 million refugees in its neighbouring region alone in the five years since violence erupted. While Europe struggles to decide how to respond to the 1.1 million Syrian refugees that have so far arrived on its shores since 2011, there is another population, hidden from view, that makes up two thirds of the forced migration iceberg. People internally displaced, that is, forced from their homes and communities but still within the borders of their country, make up slightly more than 40 million of the 60 million figure cited.

Internally displaced people (known as IDPs in the field of forced migration) have similar experiences to refugees - their departure was forced by conflict or disaster, there was rarely time to plan their move, take possessions with them, say good-bye to loved ones or plan a destination. IDPs may end up in IDP camps (we are familiar with the images of tents and tarpaulins emblazoned with humanitarian logos) or less visibly dispersed among urban slums such as Birere in Goma (DRC) eking out a living however they can.

The urban displaced generally receive little help. They rely on conflict-affected social networks and are often exposed to exploitation, homelessness and violence. People displaced into camps often get basic aid from international NGOs, but are subject to the regime of camp organisers - sometimes an NGO, as is most common in DRC, and sometimes the military as was more common in northern Uganda and Sri Lanka. Encamped IDPs often have restricted mobility and little opportunity for autonomy or income-generation - factors which often lead to despair and dependency with long term impacts. 

International responses tend to focus on geographical displacement and respond to immediate survival needs, including when displacement last years or even decades as in Colombia, Uganda and DRC. What is under-recognised is the social displacement - the expulsion from social and kinship networks which make life both possible and worthwhile. When we look at displacement through a social rather than geographic lens, we begin to see how displacement differs for men and women.

During fieldwork conducted in 2014 and 2015 for a research project exploring women’s experiences of justice after mass violence in DRC, Kenya and Uganda we met a great many displaced and formerly displaced women. They prompted us to think differently about displacement.

Gender norms trigger the displacement of women

Internally displaced women in eastern DRC (where a recent study estimated that 1,152 rapes occur every day) explained that pre-existing gender norms mean that families may disown a woman who has experienced sexual violence. A 41-year old mother described her experience of social exclusion ‘…before being raped my health was very fine and I had sufficient means. After rape, my husband left me… Even if he comes, I am unable to satisfy his needs, so I am nothing in the society.’

The social meaning attributed to a ‘raped woman’ causes catastrophic consequences and frequently means that she is rejected by her spouse, family and community. In patriarchal and fragile states such as the DRC, women’s welfare is not seen as a state concern, but rather is determined by their relationships with fathers, husbands and sons. It is the men in their lives that enable them to access food, shelter, protection and a secure place in society. Rejection by families, some women explained, means expulsion from social networks essential for life. 

As a group of women in an IDP camp in Rutshuru commented, ‘When the family gets aware that you have been a victim of that act, no one can draw near you… they will only be rebuking you saying they do not want you to approach in order not to contaminate [them]… they hated us because of the act we were victim of.’

NGOs are spreading information about the ‘72-hour-rule’ - that getting medical help within 72-hours of rape can avert pregnancies and infections, and women are taking great risks to reach a medical clinic within the time-frame. But there is little evidence of attempts to engage community and religious leaders in beginning the long, slow process of attitude change so that women who have been raped need not be victimised again through social expulsion and stigmatization. The focus is on physical, not social needs.

Damaged social relations last for years

Broken or damaged social networks caused by experiences of persecution and displacement can have a long-term impact on women’s place in communities. Uganda’s twenty-year war between the government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) caused massive internal displacement - 1.84 million people at the height of conflict. The Ugandan government forced almost the entire population of Acholiland, the epicentre of LRA activity, into over-crowded, poorly serviced IDP camps for over ten years. Men and women were not permitted to farm their lands and were dependent on aid from international agencies for survival. Camps were usually erected around military bases and followed strict rules such as curfews and restrictions on movement which made it impossible to continue important family and cultural rituals. The focus was on meeting the material survival needs that resulted from losing their homes, farms, businesses and livestock. Little or no attention was paid to the immense damage done to the social fabric of Acholi communities.

Alternate economies emerged in the IDP camps, economies that centred on alcohol, violence and sex. Elders lost their status and sometimes their lives (around 1000 people died each week in camps at their peak, many of whom were infants and elderly). Years of encampment have taken a profound toll on people, one woman described feeling like ‘a prisoner of war in my own homeland’.

The war has now ended, the camps have closed and people have returned to their land. But, in the words of ‘Annabel’, a 40-year old widow, most villages in Acholiland today are struggling with men who ‘continuously drink and they don’t do anything productive and they don’t do anything to help their families.’ Everywhere we visited women told us that their male relations are ‘deeply addicted to alcohol’, refuse to work in the fields, and that domestic and public violence is ‘rampant’. Women traced a direct causal line between encampment and their present experiences. As Faith, a widow and mother of four children explained: ‘Yes, indeed there is a great link between the experiences of camp life and the problems the people are facing up to today.’

Camp life shattered social and cultural norms which would previously have prohibited much of the drinking and violence, as well as profoundly damaging the social institutions that today are failing to restore justice, dignity and order. 

While there has been some assistance for returning IDPs to resume livelihood activities, there has been little attention paid to the repair of social relationships. This has left women and children bearing the burden of work, violence, and poverty, with little power to establish a political voice.

How we think about displacement guides how we respond to it. The geography of displacement is important, but it is only one part of the experience. The social elements of displacement are too easily relegated to the category of ‘higher needs’ or a luxury to be addressed when conditions permit. But social relationships are fundamental, and if we want to reduce displacement and ensure successful return and healing, the international community needs to think and act differently.

Read more in-depth articles on migration on oD 50.50's platform edited by Jennifer Allsopp: PEOPLE ON THE MOVE

About the authors

Lucy Fiske is Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research focuses on refugees, immigration detention, gender justice and lived experiences of global and social phenomena as a site of knowledge.

Rita Shackel is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the evaluation and reform of legal and justice processes, with a specific focus on access to justice for children, women and other marginalised and vulnerable groups.


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