Rights not relief

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
3 April 2008

by Afaf Jabiri

Afaf Jabiri is a member of Karama and one of the authors of a new report on refugee and stateless women in the Arab region. She writes here about the group's decision to produce it.

The idea of writing a report on the situation of refugee and stateless women came out of necessity. We work across the Arab region for women's human rights and it is impossible to do so without confronting the reality of life in this region, where we have the largest number of refugees in the world and for the longest period. Our struggle for fundamental human rights is meaningless unless it includes the defence of the rights of the refugee populations and working to end all forms of the oppression they face: this is central to our work. It is an enormous challenge, the situation of the refugees in our region is very complicated, but the issue cannot be avoided.

What will be of help to a whole nation removed from its roots, such as the Palestinians? What will be of help to a people who have not known what peace means as they have not experienced it for ages, as in Somalia? How should the rights of Iraqi people who have run away because they do not want to be reduced to numbers on television, where people react according how many are killed - and it must be over 50 - be protected?

Working for human rights and surrounded by conflict, war and occupation that affects millions of people, it is inevitable that we deal with the lives of stateless and refugee women. It is also certain that we cannot look at many rights when the basic right to life is violated. It's not just the right to live that we are struggling for, but rather the right to live with dignity.

In Karama we work through discussion, argument and debate to find ways of describing and measuring how violence against women in regions of conflict is manifested and how it impacts on all sectors of society. It was vital that we investigated the situation of refugee and stateless women through detailed research and study. Our report describes the daily lives of refugee and stateless women from Somalia, Sudan, Palestine and Iraq now living in five countries - Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.

The report developed in a participatory way, where women from different countries shared the information they had of case studies and statistics. While the report came to be informative, it still lacks accurate statistics. The statistics available tend to be general and do not specifically relate to women. In order to build a more accurate picture we worked with refugee women themselves wherever possible.

The report reveals the extent to which the refugee's situation is seen as a relief issue for many international NGOs and the international community and the way in which refugee rights are limited to the provision of food and shelter. One consequence of this is that the issue of broader human rights has not yet been considered for refugees. While it is necessary to see that the need for food and shelter is met, it is also part of the refugees and stateless people's anger to be viewed like this; as humans they want and expect to be granted the right to education, health, residence, the right to organize themselves and thereby to live with dignity.

We hope that this report will be a step towards changing the attitudes towards refugees and their needs, and that it will highlight how women who are most affected by war are finding ways to survive within these conditions. We hope it will draw attention to their needs as they define them and support them as they develop their own strategies to tackle the discrimination they face daily as refugee and stateless women.

You can read the full report here (pdf), plus Jane Gabriel's post about it here

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