Gender lenses and refugee assistance

Gender matters greatly in any form of third party assistance. Refugee camps are not sanctuaries from violence if they are not safe for women and girls.

Valerie Hudson
11 January 2016

Strife and bloodshed in the Middle East have led to the displacement of millions of persons.  While the international community struggles to meet their needs, what is often missing from the toolkit is a good set of gender lenses.  And that’s surprising, because we have known for decades now that gender matters greatly in any form of third party assistance, whether we are speaking of economic development projects, health interventions, or any other type.  Our assistance is more effective and our policies less likely to cause unintended negative consequences when we take into account the priorities and concerns of women.

Food and shelter are rightly first and foremost in our minds when assisting refugees.  But refugee camps are a distinctly gendered experience.  In the case of the most recent exodus, a sizeable proportion of the able-bodied men and teen boys have left for Europe (they are over 70% of those who have applied for asylum there in the last year).  It is primarily women, children, the elderly, and the sick that have been left behind in the camps.  These groups have distinctive needs, which may not be seen as important—and yet they are crucially important to the entire purpose of the camp as a sanctuary from the violence.


Syrian refugee children in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Demotix, Yasmin Al Tellaway

First, refugee camps are not sanctuaries if they are not safe for women and girls.  Physical safety is a pressing concern, and women may feel as threatened by sexual violence in the camp as they would in the war zone.  Soft-sided shelters cannot be locked in any meaningful way.  Mothers I have spoken to report trying to stay up at night, listening for those who would try to creep into their shelter.  Containers made of corrugated metal are also fairly easy to breach.  In addition to these concerns, women in some cultures are often socialized to relieve themselves only at night, for fear of sexual harassment during the daytime if they attempted to access the latrines.  But predators know this, as well.  In a focus group designed by the CDC, “women identified the latrines and the paths leading to the latrines as areas where they felt the least safe. Women and girls spoke about men hanging around the latrines and nearby paths. They described lack of proper lighting in the area. They also described latrines without privacy or doors to close the latrines, with men positioning themselves so they could see inside the facilities.”

Children may be guarded by their mothers or older siblings on the way to the latrine, but there is usually room for only one person in them, meaning the mother or sometimes the elder sister must stand, often alone, outside, and wait for the child to come out, making them vulnerable. Lighted pathways and latrines that are sex-segregated, lockable, and located in different areas for men and women are important to the basic perception of physical security for women.  The same logic applies to water collection sites and shower facilities.  As one observer put it, the women “want better options than shoving a bed frame in front of their doors or going to the bathroom in a bag.”


Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Demotix

And these conditions are not only found in facilities near conflict zones; these same conditions face women in refugee camps in Europe, where women are vastly outnumbered by men.  One coalition of women’s groups in Germany reports, “The practice of providing accommodations in large tents, the lack of gender-separate sanitary facilities, premises that cannot be locked, the lack of safe havens for women and girls — to name just a few spatial factors — increases the vulnerability of women and children . . . "The consequences are numerous rapes and sexual assaults. We are also receiving an increasing number of reports of forced prostitution. It must be stressed: these are not isolated cases. Women report that they, as well as children, have been raped or subjected to sexual assault. As a result, many women sleep in their street clothes. Women regularly report that they do not use the toilet at night because of the danger of rape and robbery on the way to the sanitary facilities. Even during daylight, passing through the camp is a frightful situation for many women.”  These same groups have called for remedial measures, such as lockable hard-sided housing for women that contains bathroom and kitchen facilities so that women and children do not have to run a gauntlet in the camp to use them.

Physical safety for women also involves reproductive safety.  Having access to family planning means is critically important in the camps, but is problematic.  In one study of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, fewer than half of the women desired their current pregnancy, and three-quarters wanted to prevent a future pregnancy—but only 42% were using contraception due to barriers such as high cost and insufficient quantity available.  Access to prenatal and post-natal care is critical, as well.  In the same study referenced above, for example, it was found that only 41% of pregnant women surveyed in the refugee camps had an adequate diet of vitamins, minerals, and folic acid.  Birth itself is complicated for Syrian refugees: UNHCR covers 75% of the cost of delivery at its sponsored facilities, but that 25% co-pay can prevent women from utilizing them.  As one Medecins sans Frontieres midwife explained, “If the refugee cannot afford to pay, she might be refused access to the hospital or have her refugee card confiscated, which often means no access to food vouchers until she can pay off the hospital bill.” Also often overlooked is a birth registration system for the children born to mothers in the camps.  Unregistered children may experience great difficulties, and may even be considered stateless, rendering them unable to access the services of any state government.

Another important gendered aspect of physical safety is hygiene.  Women of childbearing age have distinctive hygiene needs associated with menstruation, and older mothers may be at higher risk for urinary incontinence.  Amy Peake, who created an NGO called Loving Humanity to address these needs by providing equipment for the refugees to make their own sanitary pads, found these needs were not being acknowledged as pressing by the camp authorities. “A group of five teenage girls have gathered in a community centre in District 10 [of the Zaatari camp in Jordan], waiting to discuss this most sensitive of topics. A 17-year-old girl says that two months after a UN distribution, the pads have usually run out. . . . Her mother is above the age at which she is eligible for free sanitary pads from the UN, so she uses rags, as do many of her neighbours.  Peake asks if the washed rags are ever hung out to dry - the teenagers respond with a horrified "No!" This need for discretion, together with a shortage of detergent, means they can't be properly cleaned.”   Without gender lenses, we may not see how access to these hygiene products should be a priority.

Lack of physical safety for women and girls has other insidious effects—including the selling of girls under the guise of “marriage.”  Though this is clearly trafficking,  parents rationalize that the girl is better off sexually used in marriage than raped in the camp and deemed unmarriageable and dishonored.  One investigative reporter found, “For many Syrians in Jordan’s urban areas and refugee camps, marrying off girls at a young age is a desperate attempt to ease the financial burden on families who have little or no income and are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Other common reasons for child marriage in Jordan are the protection of young girls — especially in the refugee camps, where girls are at risk of sexual violence.”  Before the conflict surged, rates of child marriage were about 13%; now about 32% are being married before age 18.  The BBC reports there is now an organized trade in young girls: “Local sources say the going rate for a bride is between 2,000 and 10,000 Jordanian dinars ($2,800 to $14,000) with another 1,000 ($1,400) going to the broker.


Refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Demotix

At the other end of the refugee crisis lie other gendered elements we do not necessarily notice, either.  We have already noted how over 70% of recent migrants to Europe are male.  While those that are married may exercise the right to eventual family reunification with spouse and children, there is a large population of “unaccompanied minors,” primarily older teen boys, seeking asylum also.  Some figures are instructive; we’ll use the figures for Sweden as an example.  Every day in 2015, an average of 98 unaccompanied minors aged 16-17 reached Sweden, of whom 90 were male and 8 were female.  In other words, over 90% of all unaccompanied minors are male.  Over this 12 month period, these figures translated into an additional 18,615 males added to the population of 16-17 year olds in Sweden, and an additional 2,555 females added to the same.  At that rate, the sex ratio of all 16 and 17 year olds in Sweden is already approximately 123 males for every 100 females.  Such an enormously abnormal sex ratio—significantly worse than that of China, for example, with approximately 117 boys for every 100 girls 16-17 years of age, will have profound ramifications for Sweden, and perhaps especially for Swedish women.  Highly masculinized societies are not conducive to women’s security on a number of levels.   Crimes against women increase, and women’s freedom of movement is significantly curtailed in abnormal sex ratio societies favoring males. In addition, demands for trafficked women for prostitution increases significantly, which would be ironic for nations such as Sweden that have led out in an abolitionist approach to that scourge. How sad that those making immigration policy have not understood the consequences for their female citizens of such serious alterations to their nations’ sex ratios.  What a tragic loss for a continent that has prided itself on its commitment to gender equality and feminism, and has been a beacon to the world in this regard. Responding to the same predicament, Canada has recently decided to no longer accept asylum applications from unaccompanied Syrian men and unaccompanied male minors.

When dealing with an immense human security issue such as the migration and displacement from the war zones of the Middle East, utilizing a clear-eyed set of gender lenses is essential.  With those lenses, we can see security issues we otherwise would not know to address.

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