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The Trials of Women in Displacement

PICTURED ABOVE: Internally displaced women from Kunduz living in Khaskapa Camp sharing their stories of displacement and ongoing struggles for security, safety, and resources.

Displacement is not a gender-neutral experience.

The recognition that women, adolescent girls and children make up the majority of the world’s refugees and IDPs has resulted in lofty rhetoric about women IDPs, reiteration of the importance of women’s inclusion and participation in decision making that directly affect them and their families across the displacement cycle. Concern for violation of women's human rights is articulated in numerous international treaties and successive normative frameworks. Decades of feminist scholarship underpinned by on-going empirical research demonstrates that the experience of conflict, transition and ‘post conflict’ is gendered. Displacement and crisis disproportionately affects women and girls not only in regard to acute hygiene and sanitation problems, as consistently reported by the humanitarian agencies, but also in reinforcing and increasing vulnerability to existing deeply entrenched discrimination, gender inequalities, and violence against women and girls.

Judy El-Bushra detects four important questions to ask concerning gender and forced migration/displacement: “the impact of interventions on processes of social change, the management of camps for refugees and displaced persons, sexual violence against women and the implementation of international conventions and guidelines on the rights of (especially women) refugees and IDPs.” The experience of displaced women cuts across all these concerns.

Sudden flight leading to displacement does not always allow people to move with their community. Often norms of evacuation postulate a hierarchy where women and children are evacuated before men and boys, leading to a situation where women outnumber men in most displacement contexts. Looters, landmines, trafficking, abductions, illness, death and separation may further decimate families already broken in the course of flight. In these circumstances, women and young girls find themselves vulnerable to sexual exploitation, abduction, forced marriages and other forms of gender and sexual violence when their social support network has been shattered.


Often norms of evacuation postulate a hierarchy where women and children are evacuated before men and boys, leading to a situation where women outnumber men in most displacement contexts.


Women often experience reduced mobility in displacement situations.

In the camps, the living conditions are atrocious where strangers are cramped together much beyond the capacities of the informal settlements, women and girls have to walk distances to collect firewood and use the common bathroom in dark hours in search of privacy. Sexual predators lurking in or around the camp take advantage of such compulsions much to the chagrin of the women and young girls. In such circumstances, the families and community are more “likely to place limits on a woman’s mobility and agency than to alter the conditions that facilitate violence”. In addition, often it also happens that girls and women who have been raped either in the course of flight or in camps are abandoned by their families, left on their own to fend for themselves and sometimes also their children.

Forced displacement also compels the women to take up high-risk strategies for survival like trading sex for rations and money, trafficking or selling some children to take care of others, getting young daughters married in exchange for money, or indulging the children in child-labour.

IDP's invisibility increases vulnerability to violence and abuse and reduces opportunities for justice.

The situation of IDPs get further complicated. As has been the general experience across the sub- region, “IDPs fall between the cracks of protection extended to locals‟ and to foreign refugees and quite often, it is those in charge of their protection that are responsible for sexual exploitation and other forms of gender violence. Knowing their chances of being punished are low potential perpetrators are emboldened by their impunity and reduces victims and survivors to silence about gender violence.

Rita Manchanda sums up the situation of the displaced women stating that such refugee/ IDP woman “represents the epitome of the marginalisation and the disenfranchisement of the dislocated. Her identity and her individuality are collapsed into the homogeneous category of 'victim' and community, devoid of agency, unable and incapable of representing herself, powerless and superfluous.”

Rohingya women face extreme violence and insecurity in camps.

In the Rohingya Camp in Cox’s Bazar, almost every woman and girl is a survivor or witness “to multiple incidences of sexual assault, rape, gang rape, murder through mutilation or burning alive of a close family member or neighbor... Women and girls have experienced sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated by both the Myanmar army and by Rakhine locals. The incidence of this violence has increased in frequency over the last two years.”This demonstrates both the scope of the situation for women and the alarming increase in such incidents.

The gendered aspect of the Rohingya refugee crisis is evident in the high number of births that have taken place in appalling conditions. Women giving birth have been displaced, traumatized and, in some instances, raped. UNICEF reported in May 2018 that 60 babies are born every day in refugee camps and informal settlements. Estimates suggest that only 18% of the total child-births since September 2017 have taken place in health-care facilities. These women and children constitute one of the most vulnerable categories of the marginalized population requiring special support. Yet, due to their intersectional marginalization, they rarely come forward due to fear of further stigmatization and persecution. As the report points out, “it is impossible to know the true number of babies who have been or will be born as a result of sexual violence.”

National and international responses to forcible displacement continue to reproduce patriarchal norms.

Evidence from the WRN’s CC-based field studies consolidates the assertion that women’s experiences are missing in shaping international, national, and community discourses on gendering humanitarian responses. For women there is often a denial of subject-hood to refugees as epitomized by officials representing the refugees. The displaced are infantilized in a process where decision-making power is transferred from them to officials. This infantilization is reinforced in the context of forcibly displaced women who have the least opportunity to represent themselves. “The practices of international organizations such as the UNHCR tend to delegate women to the status of victim, which is a disenfranchising phenomenon.” Guidelines on refugee and IDP protection emphasize that “participation itself promotes protection”.

Understanding and taking into account the differential impact and needs of women and girls is critical to developing programs which prevent high risk coping strategies of women, including trafficking, transaction sex, drug trade, child marriage; and delivering effective and efficient humanitarian aid.


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