Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women’s Day insights on refugee women

UNHCR currently is responsible for more than 33.9 million people worldwide (one and half times larger than Australia’s population). Eighty per cent of refugees are women and children.

We know the day-to-day struggle for many women around the world is extremely tough 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.

To mark International Women’s Day I wanted to share a few of my insights after working 13 years to support UNHCR and refugee women in particular.

Lesson 1: Refugee camps can provide opportunity

Refugee camps are large, often chaotic and unpleasant places to be. But with the right resources they can provide opportunities for positive change for women. From having access to education or skills training not available in a home country torn apart from war through to being able to access health and nutrition programs, these are key foundations to improving women’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing of their families.

One of my great memories is attending a women’s support group in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya near the Sudanese border which featured in series one of SBS’ Go Back to Where you Came From.

In a cool shelter, a happy and very talkative collection of mothers were sharing health tips for their children and families under the guiding hand of a nutritionist.

Mothers and babies at 'Breast is Best' in Kakuma refugee settlement, Kenya. Photo Australia for UNHCR/ T Mukoya

Under a program called ‘Breast is Best’, women learnt the value of prolonging breast feeding both to improved nutrition for babies but also as a natural form of  family planning enabling better spacing of children. Beaming mums held their bouncing babies aloft as the very real proof of ‘Breast is Best’ practice.

One woman with a huge smile showed off her two children - her 18 month old daughter healthy but slightly smaller than her very roly-poly younger brother who had been nurtured with longer breast feeding. We all laughed at this very human ‘before and after’ demonstration.

Lesson 2: Education is the key to the advancement of women

Education is a key way to improve women’s health outcomes and overall wellbeing. However refugee girls have limited access to schooling. In refugee camps in East Africa for example one in five refugee girls aged 12 to 17 attend schools and only one in three advances to secondary school.

Repeated studies show that the higher the rates of participation of girls in both formal and informal education the better the health outcomes for the whole community, including lower birth rates and reducing practices like female genital mutilation (FGM). 

Girls in school are more likely to avoid early marriage. Education can help secure a better job and provide benefits to the whole family. It leads to higher incomes, lower birth rates, reduced infant mortality and increased public health.Twelve year old Vivita fled Congos’ war with her family and now lives in Nairoi. UNHCR helped her join school by paying for her uniform and her giving her hope for the future. “I believe  if I work hard I will succeed in my studies. I also believe I will be able to achieve all of my dreams,” she said.

Lesson 3: Men are part of the solution

There has been a significant shift in the way community education is undertaken around ‘women’s issues’.

Realising that to effect change you need the whole community on board, UNHCR now targets religious and community leaders, fathers and  brothers to become ‘champions for change’ around violence against women, child marriage, eliminating FGM practice, family planning and education of girls.

Late last year I was in Dollo Ado refugee camp on the Ethiopian/Somali border reviewing our projects we had funded for emergency and longer term support to famine victims fleeing Somalia in 2011.

One year before aid agencies were overwhelmed by the dying. One year later the refugee community was getting back on its feet, able for the first time in many months to start thinking beyond basic survival.

Refugees wanted better infrastructure in the camp, better housing, better water supply, more training and work opportunities. They wanted to live with dignity and security. For women this meant being free from the threat of violence.

Men are powerful advocates for women in Dollo Ado refugee camps in Ethiopia. Photo UNHCR/ D.Corcoran
I met with a group of community activists of all ages, men and women. They were employed to visit refugee families in their camp, providing counseling around domestic violence and practical support such as police intervention where necessary, encouraging girls to go to school and advocating against FGM as a practice.

I was bowled over by their total commitment and passion - and also the results they were getting. According to their estimates, FGM practice in this one camp had been reduced by 40 per cent since their intervention.

I wondered out loud why the men present were so proactive around this initiative. Looking at me as though I was a bit dim, one young man responded that of course men should be involved. It was a question of women’s human rights, he said. Their right not to be mutilated, their right to enjoy good health. He said many of the fathers and husbands he spoke to had no idea about the connection between FGM and the birth complications so many women suffered as a result. Once this was pointed out to them they changed their minds as they loved their daughters and wives.

Everybody in the group nodded in agreement with one elderly gent sporting a spectacular hennaed red beard patting him on the back.

Wow. With men and women like this we change the world!

Lesson 4: simple solutions work

Every year some 536,000 women die in childbirth. Refugee women are particularly vulnerable, often giving birth in remote, overcrowded camps without access to medical care. Improving maternal health is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted by the international community in 2000. There is still a significant gap between the current reduction by 47 per cent and the MDG goal of reducing maternal mortality by 75 per cent.

To respond to these needs Australia for UNHCR has funded a number of Safe Mother and Baby programs in Myanmar, Chad and Somalia. At the heart of these programs is the distribution of the Clean Delivery Kits.

The kit is made up of made up of a plastic sheet for the mother to give birth on instead of the dirt floor, soap for the mother and midwife to wash their hands and the baby after delivery, a razor blade to cut the umbilical cord, a piece of string to tie the cord off and a piece of clean cloth to wrap the baby in. The kit also includes an information sheet which shows in a series of diagrams the danger signs to watch for when to go to help and some very simple baby resuscitation techniques.

The key benefit of the kit is to help women give birth in a sterile environment and to cut down life threatening infection.

Where the kits have been introduced in emergency settings maternal and neo natal morbidity has been dramatically reduced.

For a cost of around $2.70 each, the kits prove that often the solution can be as simple as piece of soap!

Lesson 5: we are all connected – the power of technology

When I return home from visiting camps I often receive follow up texts from refugees I have met. “Naomi you promised this...” “Naomi don’t forget...” ”Naomi how is the fundraising going?”  Technology has made the world much smaller and in the case of refugees much more accessible.

In Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda, we funded our first ever computer training centre with internet access and established an internet café. Last year the first batch of graduates received their certificate in basic computer skills, a proud moment for the students and their trainers also refugees.

Refugees in the Nakivale Computer Access Centre connecting with the outside world. Photo Australia for UNHCR / September 2011
With internet access, refugees can now sign up to a site called Refugees United, a sort of refugee Facebook where you can post your refugee profile and trace or be traced by lost family or friends. In Nakivale, many families have been reunited with families in other camps and in countries across the world. It shows the power of technology to cross divides, regardless of your circumstances and no matter where you live.

When I asked one of the trainers, a young Somali woman, what it meant to have computer and internet access she replied “It makes me feel more than a refugee”.

For me, that one statement alone made the project worthwhile!


When I have visited camps and spoken to women I know there are many common connections with women globally – as mothers our roles are the same, as income earners, as caregivers. The circumstances we live in may change, but as women we have much in common.

I have also learnt that women are incredibly resilient. It would be easy to typecast refugee women and victims, living in poverty, torn apart by conflict, subjected to unimaginable conditions and facing constant struggles in their life.

But they also overcome incredible adversity, they still nurture their families and they still seek opportunities for advancement. We share common issues about serious issues such as participation in decision making, violence against women and women’s health. And I am proud to say that women are, by and large, always ready to help and support other women.

This International Women’s Day let’s celebrate the many amazing refugee women who with courage, resourcefulness and good humour, overcome the many challenges that displacement from home and country brings.

For more stories of inspiration, please visit our photo gallery celebrating refugee women.