For women and girls who flee conflict: protection and opportunity!
Over the past 18 months, 1.3 million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe. For women and girls particularly, that journey is one of violence and trauma.
Worldwide, one in five women displaced by humanitarian crises have experienced sexual violence. But their voices remain largely unheard.
When women and girls flee their homes in search of safety and opportunity, they often find they are merely trading one nightmare for another. Large numbers of them tell disturbing, and often recurring, accounts of robbery, and physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hand of criminal gangs, smugglers, traffickers, border guards, police and fellow refugees.
Moreover, many girls end up forced into early marriages as their parents desperately seek to protect them, instead exposing them to another form of violence.
Along the route from the Western Balkans to northern Europe, few safe, secure, and clean spaces exist for women to find protection against violence and regain a sense of safety. While national authorities and civil society, often with UN support, extend legal, health and psychosocial services to them, these efforts need to be scaled up.
With the closure of borders in 2016, many women and their children are now stranded in overcrowded reception or transit centers, lacking privacy and often even access to basic services. Many were separated from their partners and children in the process. This puts them into vulnerable positions and exposes them to abuse and exploitation.
In the course of their journeys, women are dependent on legal systems, police forces, languages and cultural norms they are not familiar with.
But they also often believe that reporting incidents of violence will trigger reprisals or even damage their prospects of obtaining asylum in the EU. For these reasons, it is highly unlikely they will report these crimes.
Governments need to guarantee the safety and rights of women and girls fleeing wars, all along their journeys and in destination countries.
First, there should be measures to prevent sexual and gender-based violence along the route. Police, border guards and other service providers must be trained to detect cases of violence and assist victims so they can get the help they need.
Psychosocial and legal support, trauma counseling, provision of basic hygiene and reproductive health products and women-safe spaces are essential parts of the package. For unaccompanied and separated girls, the immediate appointment of a guardian is a must.
Second, we call for women who experienced gender-based violence to be granted international protection as per international law. Women fleeing sexual violence, early or forced marriage, and so-called ‘honour’ killings must go to great lengths to demonstrate that these types of attacks are reasons for obtaining asylum.
Third, with no end in sight for humanitarian crises, it is critical to adequately finance programmes that uphold international humanitarian norms and standards support refugees and migrants and contribute to their social inclusion.
At a historic meeting on large movements of refugees and migrants held at the United Nations in September, governments endorsed a landmark global agenda to boost support for refugee and migrant women and girls.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, let us remember that women and girls have the right to live a life of dignity, free of violence whether at home or at work, at school or in public spaces, in times of peace or war, and as equal citizens.
Let’s work together to make sure women and girls don’t leave their homes only to face more tragedy as they are trying to get to safety.
* This piece was jointly written by the Regional Directors of the United Nations for Europe and Central Asia: Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir (UN Women), Cihan Sultanoğlu (UNDP), Alanna Armitage (UNFPA), and Marie-Pierre Poirier (UNICEF)
Photo credit: Meder Sadyraliev
Produced by: UNiTE - United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women, UN Women, UNFPA, UNDP, UNICEF