Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become the United States Secretary of State. Marlene Dietrich, the ‘silver screen icon from classical movies. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. What links them?
These three women were forced to flee their countries in pursuit of safety or better living conditions. The three of them found a host country where they could continue their professional careers. What’s more, nowhere else but in the host countries, they grew into icons of femininity and human rights. They grew so that they could change our world. They were empowered so that they could empower and inspire us today.
Happy 107th International Women’s Day!
We made it to this day but we still have a long way to go to reach gender parity. According to World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, it will take the next 217 years to achieve gender parity fully. In case of refugees, the period is much longer. While 11% of women in Europe experience sexual violence, the number rises to 69.3% in case of female migrants, including refugees. This situation is largely a result of traditional gender roles prevailing in their home societies which place women lower than men. In effect, some women are forced into marriage for protection, or they engage in ‘survival’ sex.
Unfortunately, it does not get better once they reach their host countries. In fact, these women are even more vulnerable to sexual violence in some camps. All too often, they lack adequate shelter and have to walk long distances to basic amenities. Even though the strongest, sexual violence is just one example of the gender-related struggles. Lack of employment opportunities for refugee women is another blow for their future. Being sidelined successfully deters them from achieving their full potential – or even parts of it. How many women like Marlene Dietrich have we already missed? How many brilliant lawyers, chefs or teachers had to stay home or in the camps?
May this Women’s Day be the one marking a shift from bias to empowerment – from suppression to flourishing. Campaigns like #MeToo or #TimesUp show that the world community is getting more aware of the struggles women still face, even in the developed world. What’s often overlooked is what we need more: the focus on refugees. We need a more in-depth understanding of their specific obstacles. Then, we will be able to implement programmes tailored specifically to their conditions. The Global Compact on Refugees, which the UNHCR will announce this year, is a promising starting point. However, lawmakers and global leaders must realise the need for gender-specific programmes. Refugee women do not wish to be victimised. The fact is that they need special conditions to break the vicious cycle of sexual violence and traditional gender roles. These women can be the engine for change just like Malala or Madeleine Albright are. They just need to be given equal chances. And the time for their empowerment is NOW.