Violence Against Refugee Women and Girls

Photo credit: Oxfam Canada.

“Experience of violence can lead to long term physical, mental and emotional health problems; in the most extreme cases, violence against women can lead to death.”  – UN Stats

Every day women and girls face unimaginable circumstances as refugees. They endure an extremely unsafe journey where they are in fear of and at risk of violence only to reach a refugee camp where the fear and risk only continues.

According to the United Nations,  258 million people have crossed international borders to flee violence; almost half of these people are women and girls. During the journey women and girls are put in a number of dangerous situations including walking  along roads in darkness and putting their faith in strangers. This leaves them highly vulnerable to violence and even rape. The Migration Policy Institute has reported that many women, in fear of being raped, ‘take birth control to avoid becoming pregnant.’ Out of those who are victims of violence, ‘only a fraction seek help.’[1]. Most of those who do, appeal to family and friends and ‘only a small proportion of women who sought help did so by appealing to the police.’[2]

The inhumane actions women experience appear to often remain in darkness as so many women feeling unable to share their pain and suffering. This suffering suggests that the distress and trauma of this horrific experience will only continue to fester. Women and girls are seeking a new life only to experience further pain forced upon them. The fear that they will experience gender-based violence is dominating their lives and limited choices. Woman have reportedly starved themselves so that they do not have to use the same bathrooms as men and one women was reportedly abused for asking for extra food for her children. Women and girls are being prayed on as a result of their vulnerable position. This should not be the case.

Women who have escaped their home country due to their sexual orientation are more at risk of violence.

According to Monica Costa Riba for Amnesty International, simple tasks such as showering or going to the toilet in Greek refugee camps ‘become dangerous missions’ which is partly due to a lack of toilets and showers in women-only areas. Women like Simone, a 20-year old lesbian woman who was beaten by her family because of her sexuality felt at risk of rape. Furthermore, according to the UN, women and girls are exposed to the risk of sexual harassment when collecting firewood for the daily chores such as cooking – tasks essential to survival. It has also been reported that some women  ‘engage in survival sex’ to support their daughters.[3]

We need to provide more support and safe spaces for women and girls at refugee camps to allow them to speak about their experiences.

In Dadaab, Kenya there is a project where refugee community workers are helping women and girls to get the help and support they need after traumatic experiences of violence and abuse. Please visit the International Rescue Committee’s record of a diary account written by an amazing young woman helping traumatised women at the Dadaab refugee camp to rebuild their lives whilst also bravely putting her own life at risk to do so. Miriam (name changed to protect her identity) meets with women in private to understand their situations and ask if they require services such as a medical exam if they have been sexually abused. This project highlights the dire situation refugee women and girls are facing every moment and the urgency needed to improve access to things like education which will help to break the cycle of abuse.

Many women refugees who have grown up without an education are more likely to face gender-based violence.

Indeed, the UN Refugee Agency has stated that a lack of education means women and girls are unable to protect themselves against abuse and improve their communities. The UNHCR states that, globally, primary schools enrol less than eight refugee girls per ten refugee boys. In secondary school there are less than seven refugee girls per ten refugee boys. Consequently, without an education the cycle of abuse continues. An education enables women to have the confidence to speak up for their rights and freedoms. Seeing women become doctors, teachers, artists, and lawyers for example allows girls to see that they can also be leaders in their communities. This will encourage young girls to see their potential and that their gender should never restrict them from reaching it. This year the UNHCR published a report entitled “Her Turn” which was a call to action for making refugee girls’ education a priority. This campaign is urging for more female teachers to inspire and teach girls and boys so that they can see that women are also leaders. Through putting reports like these into action and raising awareness of this crisis we can truly make a difference for future generations of women and girl refugees; until one day equal access to education will become a reality. No person should live in fear of violence.

Although the 16 Days of Activism and our Chai Day initiative have come to an end, we must continually demand better for women and girls across the globe, encourage increasing awareness of the desperate situation that refugee women and girls are forced into, and take action.

1. UN Stats, Pg.159

2. UN Stats, Pg.159

3. UN Stats, Pg.158

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is a volunteer for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.


Chatterbox: The Social Enterprise Unlocking the Skills of Women Refugees

Patuni, founder Mursal’s mum and the inspiration behind Chatterbox. Photo credit: P. Hedayat.

Shannon Hodge, member of The Circle, meets the women behind Chatterbox, a charity employing refugees as language tutors

An estimated 117,234 refugees have resettled in the UK after fleeing their homes—and countries—due to fear of violence or persecution. Many are highly-qualified professionals who are forced to leave their families and careers—and finding a job here can be challenging.

Wajed Basha, an Arabic school teacher from Syria, has joined a growing number of newly-arrived degree-educated refugees that a new start-up, Chatterbox, has employed to use their language skills to not only benefit the UK’s language skills deficit, but to benefit them too.

Wajed, 31, fled war in Syria almost three years ago and now lives in Wales with her husband and two children, aged 7 and 9. She studied Education at Tishreen University in her hometown of Latakia, Syria, where she went on to work for eight years in primary education before being appointed as a pedagogue in the Educational Directorate in Latakia.

Following the uprising in Syria that descended into a country-wide civil war, over 4.5 million were forced to flee the country—Wajed and her family included.

“Almost three years ago, we fled the war in Syria. There were explosions, bombs and extremists everywhere”, she said.

“My husband came to the UK alone first to seek safety and then later, my children and I joined him by travelling through Lebanon, before arriving at Heathrow, where we were then resettled in Cardiff.”

Describing her initial few months in the UK, Wajed said “It was very difficult at first. I didn’t choose to live so far away from my country so it was hard adapting to a new place, new people, a different culture and, on top of that, a new language”.

This is where Chatterbox—a new language learning service delivered by refugees—comes in…

The London-based start-up works with skilled refugees to provide training, contacts and work experience in the languages sector and helps them rebuild their professional lives using their existing skills, while simultaneously tackling the UK’s language skills deficit, which loses the economy an estimated £48 billion each year.

The initiative is the brainchild of 26-year-old Economics graduate, Mursal Hedayat, who now employs more than thirty tutors; teaching languages from Arabic and Farsi to Swahili and Korean, both online and in person.

Mursal watched her own mother struggle as a refugee when her family fled Afghanistan when she was just four years old. A civil engineer by practice, her mother used her language skills to find meaningful employment in the UK, following her decade-long search for a job.


Founder Mursal with Syrian dentist and Chatterbox Arabic language tutor Eiad. Photo credit: Chatterbox.

“Despite knowing languages such as English, Dari, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi dialect and Pashto, as well as having a highly-trained skill in civil engineering, my mother could only get basic low-skilled work in the UK”, said Mursal.

“Eventually, after ten years of searching, she completed a qualification in teaching so that she could use her language skills to get a job as a classroom language assistant; helping students for whom English wasn’t their first language to access education.

“She then went on to set up a supplementary school to teach core curriculum subjects, as well as Afghan culture, to the Afghan community in the area of London we live in.”

Mursal’s mother’s experience was—and is—shared by many other talented people in the refugee community, and in August 2016 Mursal drew on this inspiration to launch Chatterbox.

“Chatterbox was distinctly designed for the situation of a refugee mother who is having employment troubles and for us it’s important to help these women access work.

“We’re currently over-represented by women, whereas, in other refugee interventions, they really struggle to get women and I think part of that is the flexibility of the work and training we provide, but also the cultural barriers that stop some women from seeking work.”

Wajed agrees with Mursal’s point: “For some female refugees in the UK, it is difficult for them to get the education they need. For me, it is fine—I am a free lady—but some women would like to attend English classes so they can go on to get a job but they can’t. This is because many services helping refugees have mixed-gender classes, which some Muslim women feel uncomfortable attending—or are simply not given permission by their husband.”

With the backing of the SOAS University of London, Chatterbox launched a pilot which ran from January 2017 to May 2017. The pilot was described as a “resounding success” by both students and tutors, with the Nesta innovation foundation awarding Chatterbox £40,000 of funding to further develop the programme.

“With the funding, our aim is to train and build up a team of around 500 refugees by January next year”, said Mursal.

And for many of the current tutors, Chatterbox has been a lifeline—helping them meet new people from all over the world, improve their overall employability and support themselves and their families.

“We came here with no wage, no money, and I only had basic English—but it was not enough. I have worked hard to improve my English over the years and I’m so proud of my progress through working with Chatterbox”, said Wajed.

Discussing her future plans, Wajed said she intends on continuing her career as a teacher and is currently studying at Cardiff and Vale College, where she has been offered a Level 2 Support Teaching and Learning Course which she plans to complete in the next year.

“It’s also a long-term goal of mine to complete a master’s”, she laughs: “I am very ambitious!”

And it appears the ambition is contagious at Chatterbox HQ, with a growing female refugee community including Jihyun, a maths teacher and human rights activist from North Korea, and Sudanese human rights and women’s rights lawyer Hekma, who is currently deciding on which of her many UK university offers to choose from.


Sudanese human rights lawyer and Chatterbox Arabic language tutor Hekma. Photo credit: Chatterbox.

Mursal concluded: “A really important part of the progress that Chatterbox has made comes from the fact that I have an intimate knowledge and understanding of what my mum went through. I was in the front seat of that and not only has that propelled and created a real drive within the organisation but that sort of level of insight into a problem will lead to better solutions ultimately.

“I’d encourage all charities and social enterprises to develop solutions for refugees by engaging with them and create and develop solutions with them, rather than for them.

“Let them be the leaders and creators of their own change.”

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@shanhodge
Shannon Hodge is a Journalism graduate and a member of The Circle.