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Refugee Women

Although any person of any gender can be a refugee, this already awful experience can be made even worse simply by being a woman. This blog post will explore the two main reasons why this is the case: sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services.


Refugee women are vulnerable to SGBV, both on their journeys and also once they arrive at their destinations. In addition, there are few arrangements in place to prevent this, and little assistance available to those subjected to it. Regarding SGBV experienced during journeys, a significant cause of this is the smugglers who facilitate them, as they are known to rape or sexually assault women travelling without men. Smugglers have also been known to coerce women into providing sexual relations in exchange for help with reaching Europe, and it is thought that this issue will increase as more border restrictions are put in place. However, even displaced females travelling with their own families are not safe from SGBV, as some have reported being abused by their partners and struggling to escape this due to the already challenging circumstances. Furthermore, refugee women are still not safe from SGBV once they arrive at their destinations. For example, Frontex is responsible for European border management, and claims that ‘European border guards are trained that their work requires gender sensitivity’. However, research shows that this is not the case in practice, as border guards often do not offer the necessary specific protection to women, and sometimes they are even the sources of this SGBV. Moreover, reporting SGBV is of course extremely difficult for any victim of it, though refugee women have further issues with this due to factors such as their language skills and their understanding of systems for accessing help.


Displaced females tend to have a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, such as contraceptives, assisted childbirth, and prenatal care. This is a human right that can prevent maternal and newborn deaths, and reduce the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections. However, one reason for refugee women not always benefiting from this is their lack of knowledge about which services are available to them and how they work. This is caused by a failure to disseminate this information everywhere it is required. In addition, a number of sexual and reproductive health services are considered unacceptable in the cultures of some refugee women. For example, the use of contraception may be frowned upon in societies that believe women should have as many children as possible. Equally, women may be discouraged from accessing sexual and reproductive health services if they belong to a group that encourages abstinence prior to marriage. Other obstacles to refugee women utilising necessary sexual and reproductive health services can include insufficient finances and language barriers.


For more information on these topics, please see the following two articles: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1016/j.rhm.2016.05.003?needAccess=true (SGBV) and https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0291486&type=printable (sexual and reproductive health services). To learn about what the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) is doing to improve the lives of refugee women, please read this publication: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/sites/uk/files/2023-12/gender-equality-and-the-empowerment-of-women-and-girls.pdf.

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