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Developed by Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway and Dr Linda Bartolomei, Graphics by Damayanthi Muthukumarage, Website by Anja Wendt



Session 3. Gender-based Social Barriers faced by Women Refugees and RWLOs

A Definition * B Background * C Tools and Excercises * D Stakeholder Excercises

Aim of the session

The aim of the session is to use our understanding of the broad meaning of gender equality to analyse the situation of refugee women, girls and WRLOs.

Suggested Timing for sessions

A sound knowledge of the meaning of gender equality is essential for this session.  It should either follow Session 2 of this module, or if the groups already have a good knowledge of gender equality, just do a quick brainstorm of key points before starting this session. Material can be covered in 2 hours, with the use of one exercise.  A more thorough coverage and analysis, using both exercises will take 4 hours.

Some PowerPoints to use when running this session

This session is closely linked to the session on Meaningful Participation, Session 8

A. Gender Based Social Barriers faced by Women Refugees – A Useful Definition

This is drawn from our research data and discussions with refugee women from many countries.  Please feel free to add your own. 

Forced Displacement means that Refugee women and girls do not have even the minimal protections that should be provided by one’s country of birth.  This includes citizenship, access to individual registration, at times even birth certificates.  They have less access to legal procedures, and services such as health and education, and no legal rights to work. They are placed into often hostile vulnerable situations, and SGBV is endemic.  (See SGBV Section)

B. Background reading on how gender inequality impacts on refuge women and WRLOs

A Focus on Refugee Women and Girls

(The following is an excerpt from a paper written by Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei for the World Refugee Council)

The question is often asked: “Why such a focus on women and girls — surely men and boys are just as important?” The needs of both groups are equally important, but different, and without effective policy frameworks and tools, these differences are not recognized. There is a male bias in refugee policy, an assumption that women’s needs will be automatically covered by addressing needs articulated for and by men. However, if these differing needs are not articulated, they are often not addressed (Oosterveld 2017; Callamard 2002).

It is appalling to hear of the millions of young refugees without access to secondary or tertiary education. But without disaggregating the numbers by gender, it is not evident that the majority of these young people are adolescent girls and the different barriers they face are left unacknowledged. Many girls do not have access to sanitary materials and thus miss school one week per month; some are forced to have sex with teachers in exchange for grades and schoolbooks (DeJong et al. 2017; UNHCR 2017a; Hassel and Krause 2017). “Survival sex” is seen as the only option for single women living alone on a single person’s rations in a camp, or paying rent in an urban area (Anani 2013; Pittaway 2003). Many single young men take dangerous journeys to seek asylum, as a result of forced recruitment into terrorist groups; they face human rights abuses, including rape (Freccero et al. 2017; UNHCR 2017b). Gender affects every stage of the refugee journey, from reception to durable solutions. Unless these realities are acknowledged, there will be a failure to develop effective responses to meet the different needs of refugee women and girls, men and boys.

However, without diminishing the lack of rights and suffering of many women in the Global South, for many refugee women, the impact of this inequality is more damaging than for women residing in their own countries. They endure rape and sexual abuse at every stage of the refugee journey. Refugee women and girls have little access to protection or justice systems, and perpetrators operate with impunity. In many places there are no reproductive health services. They have even less access to education and employment than most women in host communities, and, most importantly, they have lost their homes, families and support networks. This is not to argue that refugee women should be privileged over women and girls in host communities, but rather that to achieve justice and adequate protection for refugees, the needs of both groups must be addressed equally (United Nations Development Programme 2016).

Refugee Women and Girls: A Vulnerable Minority?

For far too long, the prevailing discourse about refugee women and girls has been about a “vulnerable minority.” This has been reinforced by media stories and fundraising advertisements that depict them as pathetic and hopeless (Alhayek 2014). Women and girls are not a vulnerable group per se, nor are they a “minority,” constituting more than 50 percent of the diverse groups within refugee populations. While sharing with men and boys the same basic needs for food, water, shelter, sanitation and security, they do have additional and significantly different needs. The most important difference is that of endemic and often systematic SGBV against women and girls. Men and boys also are victims of SGBV, and again this generates the need for different and appropriate responses (Freedman 2016; Krause 2015).

There is a danger in focusing only on the vulnerabilities of women and girls, as it can create a discourse of helpless victims. There has been a movement in the past decade to change this focus and to recognize the strengths of refugee women and girls: they are also resilient, and have immense social capital and capabilities. Despite the layers of discrimination, they are not merely passive victims. In many camps and refugee sites, women run crèches (daycares) for children, arrange care for orphaned or lost children, provide safe spaces for women who have experienced SGBV, manage scarce rations to ensure that families are fed, run small businesses to support their families, organize basic schools, and provide protection (Bartolomei et al. 2016; Olivius 2014). Much of this work is done without funding or external support. In the absence of men, women take on all roles in the family and community. Women have formal skills, as well as a wide range of informal skills, and have a huge capacity. They are also capable of keen analysis of the problems experienced in camps and cities, and of formulating potential solutions. However, because of their minority status, and the discourse of vulnerability, their capacities, skills and abilities often go unrecognized. Women are silenced by limited access to representation at every level, by culture, tokenism, gender stereotypes and lack of funding for targeted programs. Therefore, to focus only on strengths is to ignore the widespread challenges, discrimination and abuse that refugee women and girls survive. They are simultaneously strong and resourceful, victims and marginalized. They usually survive, despite the vulnerable situations in which they find themselves. An adequate response involves addressing structural vulnerabilities that result from pervasive gender inequalities, as well as creating opportunities for strengths to be capitalized.

The policy of gender mainstreaming was specifically developed to address these structural gender inequalities (UN Women 2014). It is underpinned by “the recognition that gender differences shape policy processes and outcomes” (True 2003, 369) and aims to ensure that the different concerns of men and woman are fully reflected in “the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality” (ECOSOC 1997, 3). However, despite some progress in this area, gender concerns have not consistently translated into policies or practices needed to support meaningful social change (UNHCR 2018b; True 2003). It is clear that without the political will and resources to develop and implement policy and practices to address the structural vulnerabilities that underpin pervasive gender inequalities, gender mainstreaming will continue to flounder (Pittaway and Bartolomei 2018).

Implications for WRLOs

While we can identify some of the most obvious structural barriers which impact on Women’s Refugee Led Organisations, (See Module 1, Session 2), gender inequalities also causes major barriers for WRLOs.  Some women and girls never had the opportunity to attend school and are pre-literate.  Some do not speak the language of their host country. Few have had the opportunity to earn English, which is the dominant language used in the humanitarian field. Many refugee women lack access and opportunity to attend education and training about human rights, gender equality, sexual and gender-based violence, and other life skills.  They are also excluded from practical courses such as how to run organisations and projects.  Culture, family responsibilities, socio-economic circumstances and literacy levels also can pose barriers to participation. These gender inequalities must be addressed along with the structural issues.  Despite the fact that many pre-literate women with little or no formal education are leaders in their communities, and provide family and community support, their contribution is often overlooked. This was clearly observed in their roles as first responders in the COVID-19 pandemic, where women, many without any formal training or support,  stepped forward and filled the void left by humanitarian aid workers who were often not allowed into camps or communities.  

Through no fault of their own, some highly competent women lack the information, training or support to meet the expectations of donors to meet sophisticated complex guidelines and financial accountability.  They lack opportunity and experience to run WRLOs at a level which will enable them to compete for funding and meet the often-excessive requirements placed on funding by donors. To fulfill the commitments made in the GCR (Global Compact on Refugees) this must be addressed.

While fully accepting that all organisations must be efficient and accountable for funding equal to any other recipient, it would appear that, at times, accountability measures placed on refugee-led projects exceeds what is expected from other NGOs.

C. A Tool to Identify Gender Based Local Barriers

This tool is designed to identify the types of support that might be needed for different women and WRLOs to enable them to build their capacity and move towards self-reliance, and sustainability. (They are closely linked to structural barriers). The findings from the two exercises in this section should be combined and analysed to draw a comprehensive picture of the resources and support needed to assist women and WRLOs to reach their full potential in all areas of their lives.

(Please note that many pre-literate refugees have the pre-requisites to lead WRLOs and with support are fully able to design and run excellent projects.)

Ci. Audit of support needed to run WRLOs

Do refugee leaders and/or members of the  groups have the experience, knowledge and support to run local  projects  in the following areasYes,  No, PartiallyIs there appropriate training and support to enable the development of new and emerging leaders/groups in this site?  If not what, if anything, can be done to change this?
1 Have they previously been employed in an NGO, RLO or CSO   
2 Have they taken a management role in an organisation   
3 Had an opportunity to learn management skills such as: financial management, program planning, evaluation, managing people, others?     
4 Do they speak English?     
5 Do they speak the language of the host country?   
6 Are they pre-literate   
7 Attended human rights training   
8 Attended gender training   
9 Attended SGBV training   
 10 Do the men in their community support the women as leaders and WRLOs   

Cii. Meaningful Participation Assessment Checklist

This checklist is designed to assist in determining what level of meaningful participation is happening, or could be viable for refugee women in specific sites.

Gender-based barriers and solutions to achieving meaningful participation:

Places where women and girls would like to participate in decision making Barriers to this happening, Why can’t women and girls participate fullyWhat would meaningful participation  look like? What can be done to make this happen?
In the family   
In their ethnic community   
In refugee-led groups and organisations   
With NGOs, INGOs and UNHCR   
In health services   
Education   
In livelihoods   
As an advocate   
Other places not mentioned   

Question to be considered.  Can you make the links between these areas?

D. Exercises which can be used when working with community groups and service provider networks, to gain their insights.

The Jigsaw of Participation exercise was developed with eight different WRLOs in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). It can be used with community members and the staff of local/international NGOs and UN agencies working with refugee women to gain their insights. It is an extended version of the checklist designed to get a fuller picture of the barriers to participation in a particular refugee site, specifically from the women themselves, and suggestions for addressing these.

Places where you want to participate as an equalBarriers to this happening Why can’t you participate fully?What would meaningful participation look like.  What would it allow you to do?When you do participate, what allows and helps you to do this?What needs to change to allow you to participate in each of these spaces?Who can help with this?
In your family     
In your local area     
In your ethnic community     
In refugee-led groups and organisations     
In decision making with NGOs     
In decision making with UNHCR and other key agencies     
In Government agencies,     
In health services     
Education     
In livelihoods     
Other places you might want to participate