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Women Seeking Refuge in Africa – Highlighting the Challenges and Finding solutions

FRIDAY FILE: Conflict, violence, famine and natural disasters are just a few reasons why women are forced to flee their homes and become displaced. To better understand the situation of women refugees and internally displaced women in Africa, AWID interviewed Yifat Susskind, MADRE’s Executive Director.

Women have few options when they are displaced by famine or war. While some can go to family and friends, most seek refuge in camps according to Caroline Toe, Gender Focal person, Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy (FOHRD). They face a multitude of challenges including marginalization, shortage of food and safe drinking water, poor sanitation and health care and lack of security.

By Massan d’Almeida

AWID: What is the difference between women refugees and internally displaced women?

Yifat Susskind (YS): Women refugees are women who flee their homes and cross international borders. By crossing international borders, they have the right to protection from the states into which they move and from the United Nations (UN) and its agencies. Internally displaced women are women who flee their homes and relocate to another area within their country’s borders.

But despite differences in definition and international protection, refugee women and internally displaced women face similar challenges. Most are forced to walk miles in search of safety. Along the way, many women experience violence and sexual abuse or are robbed of the few possessions they carry. Women often reach refugee camps traumatized after long journeys from their homes and devastated by the disintegration of community ties.

In the long term, both women refugees and internally displaced women face ongoing challenges. In communities stretched for resources, many go without health services and have no way to make a living. Without money, many children are often unable to go to school and women and their families are unable to return home.

AWID: Are there statistics on the number of women refugees and internally displaced women in Africa?

YS: It is hard to say how many women have been displaced across the continent, because many crises, including the famine in the Horn of Africa, are ongoing. Additionally, data that is not disaggregated by sex, or that lumps together statistics on women and children obscures the gendered impact of crisis and disaster. Without this data, few policies acknowledge that women are often disproportionately affected in times of crisis.

We do know that some 1.5 million Somalis are now displaced due to the famine. According to the UN approximately 80% of refugees arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya are women and children; often men will stay behind to tend to livestock or other responsibilities.

AWID: Where do women go when they have been displaced and what are some of the challenges that they face?

YS: Many women and their families seek refuge in displacement camps, which are often run by international agencies and are one of the few places where women can find life-sustaining resources and a measure of safety.

When I was in Kenya last month, I met with Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji of our sister organization Womankind Kenya. She told me how her organization, working in the communities of northeastern Kenya, has mobilized to provide emergency food and water for Somali women and families fleeing the famine across the border. The need is immense, as thousands of new refugees arrive each day. So we have been hard at work to ensure that Womankind Kenya has the resources they need.

Hubbie also told me the story of Amina, who trekked from Somalia to Kenya, knowing the journey would be long and dangerous. Amina was forced to make a heartbreaking decision—leaving behind a child too malnourished to make the week-long trek to the relative safety of a refugee camp. But that was the only way she could find water and food for her remaining children. She is one of many mothers escaping famine-stricken Somalia who have faced this horror. Families like Amina’s arrive in the camps of Kenya literally starving and deeply traumatized by the grief of having buried their children.

AWID: What is the situation of women refugees and internally displaced women in refugee camps in Africa?

YS: These displacement camps are overcrowded, sprawling temporary settlements. In times of acute crisis, when the number of displaced persons skyrockets, these camps struggle to provide the resources to meet the escalating need. Many women and their families are forced to settle on the outskirts of camps, where they cannot access much-needed food, water, shelter or other humanitarian aid.

This is where the support of community-based organizations is essential – for women and families unable to access resources in the camps. Our partners make sure that these families do not slip between the cracks, and give them vital aid like food and water.

AWID: What are some of the factors that affect women’s security, physical integrity and health in refugee camps?

YS: Overcrowding and lack of security and lighting make displacement and refugee camps extremely dangerous for women and girls. Shoddy tents and shelter mean women and girls are not adequately protected from rapists and bandits. Without lighting in the camps, women and girls making trips to the bathroom in the night are vulnerable to attack. Uprooted from their homes, community ties that protect women and girls in these dangerous settings are almost nonexistent. Inadequate sanitation infrastructure causes water to be polluted, and in overcrowded areas, water-borne diseases spread quickly. Absence of women’s health services also means pregnant and breastfeeding women cannot access necessary care.

In order to safeguard women from violence in camps, camp design needs to take into account gender-specific needs. Ensuring that bathrooms are not far away from shelters or that private showers are provided for women can help combat sexual violence. Women in refugee camps also need counseling services that acknowledge and work through traumatic experiences, as well as gender-sensitive medical care, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Aid distribution often overlooks women when they focus on male-headed households or ignore cultural constructs that prohibit women from leaving their homes to obtain aid. We saw this in the aftermath of the 2010 floods in Pakistan. When it comes to identifying the particular challenges women face in the particular countries and cultures in which they live, no one knows these challenges better than the women themselves. This is why the work of grassroots women’s organizations is so important. With their local ties and community networks, they are able to address needs that larger aid agencies overlook.

AWID: Is it true that women refugees and internally displaced women encounter biases in host countries?

YS: Certainly, discrimination is a very real challenge faced by women refugees and internally displaced women. This can emerge from fears that the host country will not be able to sustain such a large influx of refugees or that there will be competition for resources.

But there is another side to the story. Hubbie told me how local communities in northeastern Kenya are working hard to offer food and water to Somali refugees. These communities have also been hard hit by drought, but they are making sure that refugees have the resources to survive. Womankind Kenya comes from these communities and they have been leaders in this outpouring of generosity.

AWID: How do humanitarian and relief organizations make use of UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1888 and 1889?

YS: These UN Security Council Resolutions brought attention to the necessity of integrating women’s voices and a gender perspective into reconstruction and resettlement. They aim to protect women and girls from sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings and work to amplify women’s voices in decisions about policies that affect their lives.

Since these resolutions were passed there has been more awareness about the specific needs of refugee and internally displaced women, but not enough. Around the world, women are still largely excluded from decision-making and post-conflict reconstruction.

In addition, the principles of these resolutions should be extended to address the needs of women after a disaster. Both violent conflicts and devastating disasters trigger displacement, loss of access to basic services and the undermining of communities. And in both cases, we need women’s voices in deciding how to rebuild communities. By applying these resolutions to post-disaster settings, we can help promote gender equality in reconstruction.

AWID: Are there examples of sustainable responses that enhance the capacity of women refugees and internally displaced women to provide for their families?

YS: MADRE knows that partnering with refugee and internally displaced women to meet urgent needs is the best way to achieve a sustainable solution to the threats they face. Sustainable solutions start within local communities. That is why we work with grassroots women’s groups who know well the best solutions for their communities and who can sustain these efforts long after the international aid organizations have left.

In the short-term, providing women and their families with emergency food and water, as well as medical care and counseling, is the first step toward rebuilding healthy communities. And these women are not just receiving aid, they are integrally involved in identifying what is needed in their communities and the way aid is distributed.

In the long-term, women must be included in policy- making related to reconstruction. This is an indispensible way to guarantee that policies meet the needs of the most vulnerable and that reconstruction efforts respect women’s human rights and reflect women’s priorities.

Share your thoughts/ideas with us:

What needs to done to provide women refugees and internally displaced women with sustainable solutions for rebuilding healthy communities?