Speak up for Female Refugees on International Women’s Day


By Patricia Nyhan 

The world will celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, with the call-to-action theme #Press for Progress, focusing on gender parity. We’ll celebrate how we’ve come a long way, from the days of the 1960s women’s movement to today’s #MeToo movement.

Can we capture the spirit of the #Press for Progress theme to speak up for the huge number of refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide who are women? They need our voice.

Roughly half of all refugees and displaced people in the world are women and girls, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the UN refugee agency). Whether in refugee camps in Africa or crossing our border as asylum-seekers, women face risk of sexual exploitation and other gender-related dangers on top of all the other dangers faced by anyone on the run from conflict. Females who are unaccompanied, pregnant, disabled or elderly are particularly vulnerable.

Even those women and children who survive the Mediterranean crossing to a welcoming island in Greece “face heightened risk of sexual violence amid tensions and overcrowding at reception facilities,” said the UNHCR last month.

“In 2017, UNHCR received reports from 622 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) on the Greek Aegean islands, out of which at least 28 per cent experienced SGBV after arriving in Greece. Women reported inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment and attempted sexual attacks as the most common forms of SGBV,” said UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly.

Once resettled in the U.S., women’s challenges do not stop. They may continue to face culturally-based discrimination issues within their refugee communities, their own homes or our culture at large.

If they have children, they bear the responsibility of getting the children into school and adapting to a new community, whose values and behaviors may clash with their traditions.  If they are single mothers, they must find housing, health care and child care for when they are at work – all unfamiliar roles for many women from traditional cultures whose situations make it hard to advocate for themselves.

That’s where we come in.

As former Peace Corps volunteers, we well know what women are up against in the cultures we have served in. In my case, the first woman I met in Afghanistan was a professor at Kabul University, who loved her job but admitted that when she chose that path, she knew it meant no man would ever marry her because she would forever be regarded as a prostitute.

Well, that was 1970. And even in Kabul, women have come a long, long way since then. They are as proud as we American women are of how far we have come. With so many Afghan and other refugee women now among us, in our own communities, we join our conversations, find common ground, and now have a chance to celebrate us all, on March 8.

We can imagine what the refugee and asylum-seeker women face every day. We can honor them. Find an International Women’s Day event near you, and speak up for them!

* Top Photo: 07 Sep 1965, Qui Nhon, South Vietnam --- In this Pulitzer Prize winning photo, A Vietnamese mother and her children wade across a river, fleeing a bombing raid on Qui Nhon by United States aircraft. The raid was organized to knock out Viet Cong snipers in the village who were firing on United States Marines. Women and children were warned to leave the village before the bombs began to fall. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/97930879@N02/9447512951/