During women’s history month, many women share their stories aiming to connect with and empower other women. But one group whose stories often go untold are women and girls fleeing conflict, seeking asylum and living in refugee camps. Many female asylum seekers and refugees continue to experience a high level of threat as a result of their vulnerable position in society and due to the intersection of racism, sexism and discrimination against refugees.
Risk of Sexual Violence
For women and girls living in refugee camps, there is a strong threat of sexual violence particularly if they are unaccompanied or are lone female heads of households. This risk of sexual violence comes from various perpetrators, including border guards, local police officers and fellow refugees who may request sexual favours in return for highly sought after resources such as food items.
The provision of female-only bathrooms, showers and sleeping areas are a basic way to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls in refugee camps. However, these are rarely provided. Instead camps are overcrowded, under-resourced and have few protective mechanisms for women.
Unfortunately, access to a host country, such as the UK, does not guarantee female asylum seekers and refugee’s safety. A report from Women for Refugee Women, found that almost a third of female refugees who had experienced rape or sexual violence in their home country, also experienced the same kind of violence in the UK. Further, in the UK there is currently no limit to the length of time asylum seekers can be detained once they reach British shores. This means that many asylum seeking women who have previously experienced rape, torture and detention in their origin countries, are being held in a system that is insensitive to the traumatic experiences they have fled. Making matters worse, they have little information about when they will be released.
Whilst living in refugee camps, many women and girls lose access to contraception, period and maternity care. Whilst on their periods, many women are forced to use items such as rags and even pieces of mattress as replacements for appropriate menstrual products. This, as well as a lack of safe access to running water, sanitation facilities and suitable medical care can result in infections and other health complications.
The provision of female health products within refugee camps has been made worse in the pandemic. Some organisations that have previously distributed menstrual hygiene products have stopped doing so in order to focus on ‘essential’ health services. But just because the provision of mestrual products comes to a stop, doesn’t mean women and girl’s periods do too.
Topics like sexual violence and reproductive health are cruically important to femism, but to ensure that your feminism is inclusive and intersectional it is imperative to recongise the additional and unique struggles that refugee women face. Feminism should be for everyone, including refugee women!
Reference for image: UN Women, Allison Joyce. 2018. Bangladesh – International Women’s Day in the Rohingya Refugee Camps.