Gender and sexual violence

In 2008, the UN Security Council noted that women and girls are targeted for sexual violence as a tactic of war (UNSC 2008). As noted by Major General Cammaert, a retired Dutch officer in peacekeeping, ‘it is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict’ (Roberts 2009). In 2008, moreover, women’s poverty and lack of power were identified as factors that make women vulnerable to climate migration (Roberts 2009). These two insights were not connected, however, in refugee policy. Ten years later, disasters and climate both were accepted as factors in the nexus dynamics of forced migration. The 2018 program of action for GCR implementation explicitly and repeatedly responded to women’s and girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence by promoting gender equality and calling for the end of human trafficking and all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, exploitation, and abuse. It gave this thematic account from the perspective of women’s empowerment through protections, education, and ‘decent work’ (GCR 2018). This uniquely gender- sensitive policy document not only identifies and responds to the threat of sexual violence toward women and girls but recognizes them as autonomous agents capable of full participation in society.

Unfortunately, however, Weerasinghe’s 2018 report to the UNHCR addressing the ‘nexus dynamics’ knowledge gap in understanding migration reverts back to failure to recognize women’s unique challenges in nexus dynamics. Weerasinghe says almost nothing about gender, using the word ‘women’ only eight times, ‘girls’ only once in a footnote, and ‘female’ three times in ‘femaleheaded household’ (Weerasinghe 2018). This is especially disturbing given that the report’s intention is to provide recommendations ‘to strengthen implementation of refugee law-based international protection’ (Weerasinghe 2018). For a consultant providing recommendations to protect people in flight, absence of dedicated, thematic discussion of gender is an egregious shortfall returning to the gender-blindness that risks women’s and girl’s safety, well-being, participation, autonomy, and development in flight. After all, in 2009, for example, of the 50 million people displaced internationally, approximately 80% were women and children (Roberts 2009). Not addressing protection of women and girls from sexual abuse exacerbates their situation in many ways, including for example, poor design that precludes women’s access to camp toilets at night because of the risk of assault while walking to their location.

The sexual exploitation of women and girls in forced migration violates at least nine Human Rights (UDHR 1948, Articles 3-7, 12, 16, 22) yet receives disproportionately little policy attention, and the durability of explicit discussion is fragile. Forced migration of women and girls provides simpler than normal (and more) opportunity to sexual abusers with less accountability, in a larger global context where gender-based sexual violence is normalized in widespread contemporary ‘rape culture’ (Griifin 1971; MacKinnon 1999). In the Androcene, women and girls are dehumanized in their reduction to an exploitable resource that is disposable. She is abject—etymologically, ‘thrown away’—once she serves her function. For example, in Jordan’s Zataari refugee camp, young women are sold by fathers or marriage-brokers, often women, into ‘pleasure marriages’ with men from nearby gulf states who often simply abandon the young woman somewhere in Jordan after a few days so she must find her way back to the camp alone (Long 2013). Regardless of consent conditions, that are at best blurry, her autonomy is lost in her dehumanization into a body that serves only instrumental value. This principle of reduction to exploitable resource is fundamental to global economic systems.

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