As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign, one of the issues and themes that needs and deserves our global attention is protecting refugee women and girls. Throughout this campaign series, the importance of protecting refugee women has been highlighted. Now let’s turn our attention on how to help these women adapt and integrate in their new countries, to ensure long-term safety and security.
My home country, Sweden, is currently accepting most refugees per capita out of all the European countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the native Swedes are experiencing all emotions ranging from suspicion to full out racism against the migrants, while the nation is also having a hard time integrating the newcomers in our society. We have no connection whatsoever to what these people have experienced before entering what we like to call “safe haven”. It’s difficult for some Swedes to see how it can be so challenging to adapt to our culture, when we’ve granted them a life here, among us. This is often due to pure lack of knowledge. We fail to see how vulnerable, scared and tired the refugees are, and choose to regard the situation as an economical issue rather than a humanitarian one. We don’t know where they come from, what they have seen, and what they´ve experienced. This complicates the integration of the newcomers, especially for the women, and this must change.
When women flee their countries to become refugees, they put the fraction of security they have left aside. They risk losing their families and identities, and are in danger of becoming victims of rape and other forms of violence. Many refugee women are pregnant, putting their health at grave risk without access to proper maternal healthcare. By the time these women finally arrive to our northern countries to settle down for a safe life, many of them have been even further traumatized by the perilous journey – in addition to the trauma they already had endured in the conflict zones they are fleeing. These women, many traveling with their children, have been sleeping in places that are strange to them, sometimes next to men they don’t know, and some might have experienced the horror of being raped or assaulted. When arrive, they experience major culture shock, and have to reconcile between their old identity in their home country and a new one in a country they know nothing about. This is something we must have in mind while integrating them in our community.
The UNHCR’s ambition is to have refugee women feel safe, stay healthy and empower them to take control of their lives. When they arrive to their new home countries, this is what we must help them with. To regain control of their lives. In many of the cultures these refugees are coming from, it is often the father’s responsibly to protect the families. Some women might have lost their husbands, and now have to take on a new, leading role of the family. We must help women deal with their past, while finding themselves in their new country.
For refugee women, the risks and dangers associated with the journey to flee war is only the beginning of the challenges they face. When arriving to their new home countries they are often met with racism and incapability, or unwillingness, to help. Wearing veils might be disliked in some countries, due to xenophobia. Women who have experienced sexual violence might be isolated not only by the community, but also by their husbands. Violence against refugee women sometimes continue in their new countries, as hate crimes and other cruelties are frequently reported from refugee accommodations. Is this the reality we want survivors to meet when arriving in our countries? Shouldn’t this be the place of safety and security, like it is for us?
So let us, during these 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, think of how we can help refugee women. We need to prioritize the integration of our new citizens. We need to find a way to be able to guarantee these brave people their security. We need to help women embrace themselves and their rights so that they can deal with their horrible experiences. A society needs strong women, and for them to be strong we need all of them to feel like they belong and have the chance to properly heal and recover – so that they can create a better future for themselves and their kids. Let’s get together to welcome these fighters to their safety. Let’s show them there is a good world out there for them as well.
Cover Photo Credit: Surian Soosay, Flickr Creative Commons