Ninety percent of recent refugees from Mali are women and children. This number isn’t surprising—given that most refugee populations are about 80% women. Ironically—or not—refugee camps are one of the most dangerous “cities” for women in the world. I call refugee camps a type of “city” because even though they are quickly and chaotically set-up, people use public spaces within camp in a similar way in which people use them in an established city space. Camps often have public bathrooms, health clinics, food sites, schools, community grounds, roads, etc. But because these camps are a conglomeration of people fleeing areas of war and conflict, tents and shacks are quickly set-up with little thought of access to public services.
Latrines are often later provided by aid agencies as a public health concern in an effort to prevent disease. But these latrines are usually set-up in unsafe distances from the community, in poorly lit areas, which creates ample opportunity for attacks. Women and girls are at a particular risk for sexual exploitation and abuse—even in camps under the auspices of the United Nations—by coercion for sex in exchange for food or other necessities. Women and girls also often experience rape and assault from men in the refugee camps as well as rebels or locals living on the outskirts while they walk to school, collect water and/or cooking fuel around the outskirts of the camp.
Apart from dangers of location, women’s health status is at heightened risk. Cultural norms of refugee populations often dictate that women eat last. In a situation where food is scarce, this can lead to a skewed malnutrition. Additionally, maternal mortality is tragically high among refugee populations. There is rarely an effective health system in place, few (if any) midwives or traditional birth attendants, and women’s health is rarely a priority. The leading cause of death, disease, and disability of women is due to lack of access to reproductive and sexual health care. Medical clinics are often scarce or several miles away—which may be too much time for a woman in a busy day or too much effort if she is sick.
Refugee camps are chaotically set-up cities; it is often hard to plan when they are hastily built in circumstances of war or natural disaster. Organizations must be sensitive to gender issues and cultural norms when sending aid, because often these efforts may be part of a cause of more social ills within a camp. There are refugee camps, which have been around for over 60 years, and now are considered shanty-towns. Perhaps if 80% of the people in these camps felt empowered within their own communities these areas might be only temporary settlements—and not grow to be established slums. For more information on efforts already being made to bring women up in refugee camps, see Resources below.
Women in Camp Management: Best Practices for Refugee Women Series. (1998). United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Volume 1.
Gender Based Violence.(2012). Women’s Refugee Commission. http://womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/gender-based-violence
Refugee Girls: The Invisible Faces of War. (2009). Women’s Refugee Commission. http://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/docs/refugee_girls_book.pdf
Reproductive Health. (2012). Women’s Refugee Commission. http://womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/reproductive-health
Mental Health of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons, and other Populations Affected by Conflict. (2012). World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/pht/mental_health_refugees/en/