Today we live in a world whereby nearly 71 million persons were forcibly displaced at the close of 2018, half of them were women and girls, the highest number recorded since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began collecting data in 1951.
For example, out of 5.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, 43% are women and girls. More than half of the 4.3 million South Sudanese displaced are women and children. In the Asia-Pacific region, 6.9 million persons (48% are women and girls) are displaced, including 4.2 million refugees and 2.7 million internally displaced persons. In India, 47% of people who are registered with UNHCR India are women and girls.
Harmful traditional practices and sexual and gender-based violence, such as forced marriage, child marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, can be a cause of displacement for women and girls. Many refugees who shared their stories with UNHCR and the Save the Children in India told us that that they were unable to avail themselves of protection from such violence.
For example, Fatima*, a refugee in India, was forced to leave her home country and travel with her young children because she was about to be forcibly married to an abusive man after her husband passed away. Not all women and girls are able to cross international borders to seek safety, and some are displaced internally within their country’s borders. Those who do take cross-border journeys may face violence and exploitation along the way.
Refugees often loose members of their families, friends, homes and livelihoods and face daily struggles to survive in countries of asylum including India. All refugees face these challenges; however, women and girls may be exposed to additional risks, because of cultural barriers and traditional gender roles in their communities. Refugee girls are less likely to attend schools, and more likely to be married as children and become teenage mothers. Refugee women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking and exploitation. They often experience trauma, but they do not always have easy access to quality health care in countries of asylum.
In India, consistent efforts are being made to address violence against women, to promote girls’ education and to empower women. The United Nations and civil society in India work together with government authorities to achieve gender equality in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
UNHCR and Save the Children in India implement several programmes to address the needs of refugee women and girls, including their effective access to national services, such as education and health. However, more needs to be done collectively to create an environment where refugee women and girls are empowered in all facets of life and benefit from these initiatives.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we call upon leaders, government authorities, the private sector, civil society and others to join hands with UNHCR and Save the Children in solidarity to support women and girls in displacement.
*Name changed to protect her privacy.
Bidisha Pillai is the CEO of Save the Children and Oscar Mundia is chief of mission, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.