by Jenny Dunn, ed. Elana Wong
Refugee women waiting in Moria (Lesbos, Greece), one of the first registration 'hot spots' for migrants entering Europe. Image Credit: Marie Dorigny, featured in the NY Times
Nadia, a Yazidi woman from Iraq, witnessed violent extremist behaviour in her country before fleeing Iraq, 4 months pregnant, with her young children. At 9 months, she travelled on a boat to Greece. She lost her unborn child, likely from malnutrition and stress. Upon arrival, her baby was removed by caesarean section, and immediately taken away and buried in a mass grave (Women for Refugee Women). Her story is an example of just one of many risks and dangers that face women who are forced to become refugees.
Another major problem that women face, both whilst travelling and in camps, is the threat of sexual harassment. Refugee women refer to a constant feeling of vulnerability, and this anxiety is not unfounded: countless testimonies have described being groped or abused by smugglers, security officials as well as other refugees. In transit, shorter waits or discounts are often offered in exchange for sexual favours. Harassment remains a threat in camps, with some solo female travellers or women with children feeling so unsafe sleeping surrounded by men that they choose to sleep outside the designated ‘safe’ areas. A woman speaking to Amnesty International described how a camp security guard in Germany had offered her clothes to spend the night with him. They also interviewed Hala, a 23-year-old woman from Syria, who travelled with a friend who used all her money. A smuggler’s assistant offered her a place on the boat leaving Turkey if she slept with him, she refused and was left behind.
Additionally, one problem is faced by every female refugee every month. The charity Global One carried out a survey of more than 800 women in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. 60% of these women did not have access to underwear, let alone sanitary products, while on their period. Poor hygiene and lack of toilet facilities frequently leads to infection and very few are in the position to seek treatment; more than half of the interviewed women had suffered from urinary tract infections as a result of using makeshift sanitary towels from materials such as rags and old mattresses. In addition, stigma from menstruation also discourages women from being in public when on their period, preventing them from reaching food and other services, as well as interacting with others. Women in camps often choose not to eat or drink so they can avoid using the mixed bathrooms where men will watch them.
The issues facing female refugees extend much further than those in this brief overview. Beyond experiences when travelling and in camps, women refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are often in a more vulnerable position than men when it comes to resettlement, supporting a family, or finding a job. Problems specific to female refugees must not be overlooked, as they frequently are, if the refugee crisis is to be properly confronted.