A few weeks ago, I attended the wedding of my good friends Aminata and Antoine. Theirs was a very Sydney love story. Boy meets girl at Opera Bar. Boy goes home to France. Love blossoms. Emails and texts fly back and forth across. Boy returns to Australia et voila! There we were overlooking the sunset harbor, toasting the health and happiness of our two dear friends. What made this occasion even more special than most was the joy everyone felt knowing the long and dangerous journey Aminata had travelled to get there.
Aminata was only 19 years old when rebels attacked her village in Sierra Leone and took her hostage. As she recounted, "I can still see their faces as if it were yesterday. I was standing frozen with my family when one of the rebels took my hand and ordered me to follow.
"I followed them without argument. I knew what would happen to my family if I didn't and from then on, the rebels owned me. I couldn't run or hide from them. Many times I wished I was dead. I thought about taking my own life.”
After being held for several months she escaped and made her way to neighbouring Guinea where she joined hundreds of thousands of other refugees in a UNHCR camp and was eventually resettled to Australia - the rest of her family are scattered across the globe.
In Australia, Aminata again made her own way – she formed new friendships, went back to school, and worked in fashion. She also found her voice. Aminata has become a powerful spokeswoman for refugee women talking to schools, community groups and the media in order to highlight the difficulties faced by refugee women, along with their strength and resilience.
We know it’s tough for many women around the world but the situation for refugee women is even more precarious. Displacement compounds the many issues women already face such as sexual and gender based violence, poor reproductive health, and limited access to education and income generation.
|An internally displaced Congolese mother camps close|
to the UN military base in Masisi for security.
In any refugee population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and often their family structure, women are particularly vulnerable.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is just one of many current conflict zones where UNHCR - the UN Refugee Agency - is working to protect and assist women and ensure they are safe from violence and exploitation. UNHCR hopes this will help reduce the risk of gender-based violence while allowing room to improve the quality of the response. UNHCR is also seeking to provide protection during displacement and upon return, and strengthen community response and protection mechanisms by means of education and mobilization.
Please stay tuned for part TWO of my blog for International Women's Day 2012. In the meantime, if you would like more information on UNHCR's programs or even to see how you can support refugee women and girls, please visit our website or facebook page.