Women refugees may be persecuted, or fear persecution, due to the fact that they are women. Examples of gender-related fears of persecution may include fleeing from female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, rape and sexual violence, domestic violence and lack of state protection, death penalty for adultery, and family ostracism or victimization as result of being trafficked. Whether women refugees fear gender-based persecution or are fleeing from generalized violence, they can face particular vulnerabilities. This section outlines the relevant international legal framework, and explores several issues that affect women asylum-seekers and refugees. Domestic violence, trafficking and smuggling, issues relating to healthcare, and challenges faced in detention settings will be covered.
Various international human rights instruments protect the rights of women refugees and asylum-seekers, including:
- 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol
- Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women
- Convention Against Torture
- Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among others.
Although not all countries are signatory to these international human rights instruments, customary international law may arguably bind all states to the contents of many of these instruments. The provisions specifically protecting women and girls, both in situations of forced displacement and in general, should be taken into account when advising, representing and empowering clients, as well as when conducting advocacy to governments.
Issues facing refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls in practice
Domestic violence may accompany a refugee from their country of origin to their country of asylum. The compounded stress of living in a new and difficult environment while seeking asylum can provoke new instances of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in refugee populations. Frequently, domestic chores are the only activities left in refugee settings. While this leads women to retain purpose and structure in their lives, the lack of work rights or livelihood opportunities may render traditionally productive men idle and frustrated — upsetting power balances in families. Similarly, traditional societal structures are uprooted and altered with forced migration movements, leaving elders and men with less authority than they are accustomed to. These frustrations can trigger incidents of sexual violence in a bid to re-assert control and authority.
Much domestic violence are under-reported because individuals may fear being reported to migration authorities if their status is insecure. In addition, women may fear health and law-enforcement officials due to past trauma, language barriers or experiences of discrimination. To minimize fear, advocates can work with local authorities (including police, doctors, and judicial authorities) to improve their knowledge and protection of refugee women’s rights, as well as women’s rights in general. This can be done through streamlining or optimizing access to courts and services to combat incidences of SGBV. These issues should also be covered with refugee men and women to improve their own ability to demand fair and respectful treatment.
Advocates can also connect with other service providers, such as shelters, religious groups or other programs that work with women, to provide useful legal information and recommendations. This can include women’s rights, and channels to pursue redress and stop abuses. Building up a network of other service providers can also help: you may need to refer women at risk or suffering SGBV to temporary shelters or safe houses, and to medical and judicial officers sensitive to these issues.
In addition to the challenges that refugees may face as girls or women, their gender identity can intersect with a combination of other identities that lead to additional vulnerabilities. Examples of other identities may include age, migration status, civil status, race, nationality, sexuality, ability, and class. These identities can incur inferior treatment by the country of asylum’s officials and community. For example, issues can include the abduction and sale of young girls as brides, the forced marriage of widows and the physical and sexual abuse of those in mixed marriages.
Under international law, human trafficking can take a variety of forms including sexual exploitation, forced labor, and removal of organs. Depending on your locale there are differing narratives surrounding the trafficking of persons. Victims of trafficking may be difficult to identify because not all survivors experiences fall within dominant narratives. For example victims of trafficking can have diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, varied levels of education, and be from urban or rural locales. Women and girls can experience heightened vulnerability to trafficking from their relative lack of access to resources and education. This is especially true for populations who have experienced violence, trauma, and homelessness.
Refugees may require gender-specific mental and medical health whilst in the country of asylum. For example, many refugee women are survivors of rape, forced abortion, or other forms of torture and violence. Therefore, when highlighting refugee rights concerns on an individual basis or in wider advocacy campaigns, specific issues including reproductive rights, access to medical attention and protections from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) should be considered.
The table below outlines the common issues faced by refugee women. However, this list is not exhaustive and should only be a starting point to trigger thought on how organizations or programs can advance the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls.
|Access to Birth Control||Birth control is an essential part of health care. It helps to plan a strong and healthy family, and allow women to be in control of their own bodies and lives. Access to birth control and family planning is frequently not easily accessible for refugees. Advocating for programs to help refugees access birth control in countries in which they are seeking asylum, and engaging refugees to assert their rights to inclusion in such programs, are vital to ensuring equal health rights.|
|Pregnancy and Prenatal Care||Pregnant women seeking asylum often do not have access to appropriate prenatal care. In some cases, women do not even have a place to give birth. Hospitals may refuse admission to an asylum-seeker woman in labor for fear that they will not be able to afford the hospital bill. Examples of such discrimination based on migration status should be challenged.|
|Childrearing||In many societies, women are in charge of taking care of children on a day-to-day basis. It is often difficult for refugee women to access the basic necessities needed to raise a family, including items such as blankets or milk (if the mother is not breast feeding). Women may incur greater health and nutrition problems when dividing their insufficient supplies among their children, leading to more frequent health complaints.|
|Menstruation||Menstruation has many different cultural norms surrounding it that can include limitations on mobility, activity, and interaction with others. With little money, isolation, and unawareness of how to procure feminine hygiene products in a new country, refugee women may not have access to such products. This has ripple effects on girls’ attendance at school, productivity, and ability to pursue income-generating activities, affecting a host of other rights.|
|Sexual Health||Many women may become pregnant or HIV+ as a result of persecution, or as a result of coping strategies in the country of asylum. Populations that are marginalized, whether due to isolation in camps or invisibility as urban refugees, will likely have poor access to sexual health advice, programs, and facilities. They may be barred from accessing services that appear for nationals, or face briberies even if they have the legal right to access these services. Ripple effects on fertility and long-term illness leave these women unable to achieve their full potential and take control of their bodies and lives.|
|Mental Health||Rape, SGBV, discrimination and other forms of abuse, whether experienced in the country of origin or asylum, have long-lasting and damaging effects on an individual’s mental health, self-esteem and ability to fulfil goals. Refugee women may disclose information on such abuse during case interviews, in women’s empowerment groups, or in any other context to legal advisers. Pursuing a refugee claim may re-traumatize applicants, worsening mental health throughout the course of a case.|
As an advocate, be alert to the mental health needs of your clients. Referrals to pro-bono mental health professionals are vital in order that integral justice can be pursued alongside formal justice processes. In addition, one can advocate for improved services to survivors of SGBV and other forms of torture.
If a woman asylum seeker is placed into immigration detention because she is without a proper legal status, she may be particularly vulnerable in the damaging setting of a detention centre. Often, asylum seekers do not have access to adequate food (e.g. baby formula), privacy and appropriate sleeping arrangements, or medical care for themselves or their young. Organizations should promote links with local detention centers to allow access, in order to ensure that women’s specific needs are being addressed in immigration detention. Be especially alert to signs of sexual abuse or exploitation by – predominantly male – guards in such contexts, which may be particularly difficult to address given the lack of confidentiality and privacy in detention settings.
Note that many of the areas of concern may also affect men. However, they were mentioned in this page only in relation to women, and further resources should be consulted in order to take men’s specific needs and concerns into account. In addition, others may be persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender (e.g. LGBTQI) identity, among other reasons.
- Examining the particular relevance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to the protection of women of concern to UNHCR (Joint seminar of CEDAW Committee and UNHCR)
- Protocol on the Prevention and Suppression of Sexual Violence against Women and Children (International Conference on the Great Lakes Region)
- UN Women’s Note on Sex Work Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking (UN Women)
- Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime)
- Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime)
- Human Rights of Refugee, Displaced and Migrant Women workshop (Centre for Women’s Global Leadership and UNIFEM)
- Ensuring the Reproductive Rights of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Legal and Policy Issues (Françoise Girard and Wilhelmina Waldman)