Listening Could Change Everything For Refugee Women

There is an urgent need to listen to the lived experiences of refugee women and reform policies and practices to end the injustices that their voices bring to light.


Despite it being generally acknowledged that women make up almost half of the worlds displaced population, refugee and displaced women still face significant gender-specific challenges during their journey, including in camps and transit points in Europe. As a result, there is an urgent need to document the lived experiences of this under-reported section of the refugee population seeking sanctuary in Europe.

At Refugee Rights Europe, we conduct evidence-based advocacy underpinned by our robust field research. Our interviews with refugee women have enabled us to highlight several key issues facing women and girls in displacement, including incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, issues around camp design and access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Documenting their lived experiences has enabled us to more effectively bring hidden adversities to light and present under-heard voices directly to decision-makers, calling for effective policies that uphold women’s rights.

Women and girls in displacement contend with rampant sexual and gender-based violence, flawed camp designs, and inadequate access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Rampant sexual and gender-based violence

Across Europe, displaced women report incidences of sexual and gender-based violence. In the now demolished Calais camp in northern France, 41.7% of the women we spoke to had experienced gender-based violence while inside the camp. This includes some reported incidences of sexual violence and harassment. One woman recalled that she was grabbed by a group of men who pulled her by the hair, as one told her ‘you will come with me.’

In 2016, 17.7% of women surveyed in mainland Greece had been subjected to violence inside the camp in which they resided, and 65.5% of some 30 women interviewed privately said they knew other women who had suffered from gender-based violence during displacement.

Refugee women also contend with people smugglers, who are known to target women who travel alone and typically try to coerce women who lack financial resources into having sex. The sexual and gender-based violence response could be strengthened on a day-to-day basis through capacity strengthening support for staff members and volunteers operating in the camps across Europe.

Flawed camp designs

Incidences of sexual and gender-based violence are often compounded by camp design and the living conditions in which many refugee women are forced to live. Camps as a whole are not designed with the needs of women in mind, although NGO’s on the ground have worked tirelessly to set up women’s ‘safe spaces.’

In Ventimiglia, Italy, one male Ethiopian camp resident told our researchers that women and girls are at constant risk of abuse within the camp due to the lack of security measures. Similarly, in mainland Greece, 69% of women reported not having a secure lock on their shelter, whilst 46.4% said they did not feel safe in the camp. Although many camps have installed women-only toilets and showers, these are seldom monitored and clustered in an area of the camp that is remote for some women. They are often used randomly by men at night, and their design leaves women at risk.

In Calais, only 26.9% of women had their own bed to sleep in, while more than half of the women surveyed revealed they did not have a secure lock on their shelter. Despite the demolition of the camp in October 2016, a number of women and girls remain in the area in wholly inadequate conditions. Women’s safety in camps across Europe could, therefore, be strengthened on a day to day basis by addressing camp design with women in mind, including accessible toilets and washroom facilities.

Inadequate access to sexual and reproductive healthcare

Alongside experiences of violence, Refugee Rights Europe’s research found that many women in displacement could not access adequate healthcare provision during pregnancy. In Greece, 33.9% of general survey respondents said they did not know where a woman could seek medical care if pregnant, while 24.3% of women did not know where they could seek this care.

In Calais, we found that 56% of women had experienced health problems since arriving in the camp, including sexual or reproductive health concerns. Meanwhile, the situation for pregnant women was particularly precarious; one respondent reported that she lost her unborn child due to the detrimental effects of tear gas exposure.

To address the lack of sexual and reproductive healthcare available to women across Europe, policies should be implemented that extend the variety in the provision of contraception with a view to empowering women to be in charge of their reproductive rights, as well as ensure women have discreet and swift access to pregnancy tests and relevant referral pathways.

Listening to the voices of refugee women

By listening to the voices of women and girls in displacement and bringing their lived experiences to light, advocacy groups and campaigners are better placed to understand the issues at hand—enabling them to make informed, effective policy recommendations to call on decision-makers to take urgent action. By the same token, program implementers will be able to better meet the needs and secure the human rights of women and girls if they listen carefully to what they have to say, rather than making assumptions and guesses.

In short, throughout Europe, the voices of refugee women themselves should be the foundation upon which policies are developed and program interventions are based in order to resolve the current human rights violations experienced by women and girls in displacement.

This World Refugee Day, let’s all strengthen our commitment to bringing those voices to the forefront, listening to the powerful women and girls in displacement who know best.

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Featured photo: A woman in a refugee camp in Greece washes her clothes by hand. Women in camps bear the brunt of family duties, they told Refugee Rights Europe, a nonprofit organization that is documenting the lived experiences of displaced women. Photo by Claire Veale

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