This piece was written in 2016 for LightningBold.com
On March 22nd, the Commission on the Status of Women held a panel at the Church Center for the United Nations where the topic of discussion was “The Perilous Journey of Women Refugees Worldwide.” The four esteemed panelists contributing to the discussion were Mr. Daniel Seymour, Deputy Director for Programmes UN Women; Ms. Ugochi Daniels, Chief of the Humanitarian and Fragile Context Branch, United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA); Ms. Joan Timoney, Senior Director of Advocacy and External Relations, Women’s Refugee Commission; and Dr. Dorothy Morgos, head of MSF-USA’s psychosocial care unit with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Kathie Bolognese, the Vice President of the Board of Directors of the US National Committee for UN women, Metro NY Chapter, gave us her statement before the panel began:
“We are very pleased by the huge turnout for our CSW panel today. We believe the worldwide refugee crisis is one of the defining issues of our time and along with UN Women, want to see the specific needs of vulnerable women and children given more priority in humanitarian response, planning, and implementation. The short and long term impacts on society are going to be huge if we don’t get it right.”
While the overall theme of the panel addressed the specific needs of refugee women during their displacement, each panelist had a distinct area of expertise that allowed different angles of the refugee crises to be analyzed. The discussion focused on the key argument that women refugees face very specific threats on their journey to asylum and how these needs should be acknowledged and addressed immediately by humanitarian aid organizations and state governments.
Mr. Daniel Seymour discussed how important it is to put administration for the humanitarian programs that directly affect women in the hands of women themselves and how UN Women is working to empower and enable these displaced women in their living situations.
“Women and girls have particular vulnerabilities, but that is not what defines women in a situation of displacement. What defines them is their capacity to be a solution. What you see is communities that depend on the contribution and the role of women to survive… In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, we have something called the Oasis Initiative, which provides a safe space for women and girls to go to, provides cash-for-work opportunities, links their capacities and skills to the camp economy and the economy of the surrounding population.”
Mr. Seymour outlined the demands that UN Women has for the future of humanitarianism, emphasizing the importance of providing women refugees with agency and protection.
“First, we really need to demand of the people that drive these responses that the voices of women and girls leadership is given a space in humanitarian response. Second, we need to make sure that they have access to services, particularly to sexual and reproductive health; that is a massive, very real issue for women and girls in situations of displacement. Third, we have got to get it right on gender-based violence. We have to protect, and we also have to make sure that survivors have services that they deserve. Fourth, we are proposing that 15% of all the money that is spent on humanitarian action, including for displaced populations, should be demonstrably targeted at improving the situation and empowering and enabling the contribution of women and girls. Lastly, we want to make sure that all of those actors hold themselves properly accountable in line with the international frameworks that they have signed up to, that they have agreed to, and we have to hold them accountable to and make clear that we expect them to deliver on the promises that they have made.”
Ms. Ugochi Daniels discussed how often the coverage of refugees by humanitarian programs and news broadcasts always feature images of suffering women — pregnant women, young women, old women, young girls, etc. But Ms. Daniels says women are “featured first and funded last” in the world of humanitarianism.
“The world has become increasingly fragile, and what we find is that in 11 of the least stabile countries, we have 140 million women and girls of reproductive age, we have almost 17 million pregnant women… We must reach these people, particularly these women and girls in these settings. We have to be able to do that.” (UNFPA Kenya)
Ms. Joan Timoney emphasized how important it is to understand that refugee camps are not the only place where women refugees experience gendered violence; the road is incredibly dangerous for these women, and “the journey itself is wrought with peril.” But Ms. Timoney tells us how we can help refugees, how we can do our part to get involved, and how we can actually make a difference.
“The general public can always contribute to organizations that are directly helping refugees, whether it’s MSF or others. That is one thing you always can do, and should do. I also think there is very good advocacy that individuals can do, say, with our own US government about assistance for refugees or possibly taking in more refugees here in the United States than we currently do. I think considering our size and wealth, we can be taking in many more than we do currently. You can do your own personal outreach in your communities to people who may be refugees or recently arrived migrants to make them feel welcome, because I think, especially now, the feelings of xenophobia and so on are some of our discourse. I think there is all kinds of things we can do, neighbor to neighbor, that can make a real difference.”
Dr. Dorothy Morgos stressed that it is imperative to maintain the dignity of these refugees, because even though they might be displaced and driven from their homes, they are not just helpless victims in need of saving. We are all people and we are all equal, and we need to endeavor to help each other.
“We are only oceans way. We are only fields away… We should not feel sorry for them, this is very dangerous when we feel sorry because now we are saying that we are better than them, ‘poor them!’ No. We see them through the eyes [that] we are equal; it’s part of their journey and we are blessed to be part of that journey…. Help with no judgement, but wisdom.”
Dr. Morgos also spoke in reference to our current political climate and the changing attitudes toward refugees entering the country.
“People listen to the news through the lenses of fear and this definitely colors how they approach helping someone. It should not be out of guilt or out of fear, but more out of conviction that this is needed… They are human beings like us… Interact with them, listen to their stories. They are not all miserable stories. These are people who all had lives before what happened to them.”
Refugee women face a particularly difficult journey on the road to asylum: dangers of sexual violence and sex-trafficking, getting access to birth control and family-planning assistance, carrying the burden of their families on their backs, and creating a life for themselves outside of the one they have always known. These respected panelists demonstrated that having hope for refugees, for humanitarian programs, and for the general state of the affairs that begets the violence that drives people from their homes, is not a hope lost. By addressing the needs of refugee women more directly, and putting power in the hands of women to administer humanitarian aid, we can turn the tide of refugee crises all over the world.