DAY THREE – 37 Years of Struggle: Academics and Refugee Women Working Together to End Rape, Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Linda Bartolomei and Eileen Pittaway reflect on what has been achieved 37 years since the UN’s Nairobi Third World Conference on Women and commitments made by all governments to protect refugee women and girls from sexual abuse and violence. [Content warning: Rape, Sexual Violence]

Linda Bartolomei and Eileen Pittaway (Forced Migration Research Network, UNSW)

We have tried to tell people, but no-one will listen. They don’t want to hear. They say women will not talk about rape because we feel ashamed. Who should be ashamed? Us, or those who raped us? (El Salvadorean refugee woman 1990)

In 1985, the United Nations (UN) held the Nairobi Third World Conference on Women with the goal of achieving gender equality for women everywhere. One of the key areas of concern was refugee women and girls, named as one of the most vulnerable groups in the world with the rape and sexual abuse they face clearly identified. Commitments were made by all governments to improve the protection of refugee women and girls worldwide. Thirty-seven years on, and after almost three decades of joint research and advocacy with refugee women and girls, academics Linda Bartolomei and Eileen Pittaway reflect on what has been achieved.

While progress has been made, in 2022 the majority of refugee and other displaced women and girls continue to suffer from rape and sexual violence.

‘All my sisters, my mother, my friends – all the women have been raped. The military, they rape us. When we try to cross borders they rape us, when we go for water they rape us, when we go for food they rape us, when we go to the bathroom, they rape us. The police, they rape us. Our life is rape’.

(Rohingya refugee women 2019)

Rape occurs at all stages of the displacement journey. It is often part of persecution in homes and villages, as a strategy of conflict, in flight, at borders and in refugee sites. In 2017, a Senior United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff member stated that 100% of the refugee women fleeing conflicts in boats had been raped and sexually abused on their journeys.

Women attempting to escape the horrors of war via smugglers are advised to carry condoms, as rape is inevitable. 

It is perpetrated by military, guards, militia, police, males from host communities and males from displaced communities, sometimes by humanitarian workers. Women are raped in front of husbands, fathers and children. The impacts are profound. Many abused women bear children of rape. Young girls die because they are too young to bear the children conceived from rape. Men are shamed because they cannot protect women and girls, and whole communities suffer collective guilt. It occurs in all aspects of their lives and cross cuts all the areas of the protection they should receive from the international community. Many displaced women are forced to sell sex to feed themselves, their children and their families. Displaced women and girls remain some of the most marginalised people in the world and this culminates in a range of human rights violations and abuses with rape, sexual and gender-based violence being the biggest barrier to gender equality (Collated findings from 33 years in the field, in Pittaway and Bartolomei, Only Rape! Human Rights and Gender Equality for Refugee Women, forthcoming 2022).

Some things have improved. Rape in conflict and refugee situations is now acknowledged and is widely reported.

Rather than being viewed as a ‘vulnerable group’ in need of saving, refugee women are being recognised as leaders in community based-protection and advocacy and the voices of the courageous refugee women and girls who are speaking out are finally being heard. They have proven time and time again that they are resilient, capable, knowledgeable and strong and can contribute sharp analysis of the risks they face, and the solutions required.

This has been demonstrated repeatedly in the Refugee Women and Girls Key to the Global Compact of Refugees Project, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and being undertaken with refugee woman, academics, NGO and UN partners in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.

Increasingly refugee women’s voices are being heard on the world stage and in important UN fora including at meetings of the UNHCR. They are now demanding a seat at the policy making table as equal players in the fight for security and justice. This has happened because of their capabilities and determination, and through the work behind the scenes of a multitude of refugee representatives who made this happen. Vibrant refugee networks, such as the Global Refugee led Network (GRN), the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR), and Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders (GIRWL), all with strong commitments to human rights, gender transformative and inclusive age, gender, and diversity approaches, are taking the lead in advocacy and work on the ground.

But the fight for safety, justice and gender equality is far from over. Human rights activists, refugee women, and all stakeholders must continue to work together until we stop this horror for all women everywhere.

Authors’ Bio

Linda Bartolomei: Linda is a founder and co-convenor of the Forced Migration Research Network (FMRN) and the convenor of the Master of Development Studies at the University of New South Wales. Since 2002, Linda has been involved in a series of action research projects exploring the challenges associated with identifying and responding to refugee women and girls at risk in camps and urban settings. This has involved research in multiple sites across Africa, Asia and the Middle East and in Australia. Since 2017, with Eileen Pittaway, she has she worked with UNHCR Geneva and a team of refugee women conducting audits of gendered aspects of all meetings relevant to the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and its implementation. She is currently leading a multi-year project in four countries in the Asia- Pacific with colleague Adjunct Professor Eileen Pittaway to support the implementation and monitoring of the commitments to refugee women and girls in the GCR.

Eileen Pittaway: From 1999 to 2013, Eileen was Director of the Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences and International Studies. The major focus of her work has been the prevention of and response to the rape, sexual abuse and gender-based violence experienced by refugee women, both overseas, and following resettlement to Australia. Over the past thirty years, she has conducted research, provided training to refugees, UN and NGO staff in refugee camps and urban settings, acted as technical advisor to a number of projects, and evaluated humanitarian and development projects in 18 different countries. In 2012, she was made a member of the Order of Australia for her work with refugees.

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