NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS) — The photos that won this year’s Pulitzer prizes tell a powerful story of massive migration from Syria and Iraq, yet the images fail to reveal how this ongoing tragedy impacts women and girls.
And while concentrating on the events in Europe, the media by and large has ignored the heavy burden that women bear in the many regions toxic with violent conflict.
For the first time since World War II, the number of refugees and displaced persons has surpassed 50 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The High Commissioner also emphasizes that women and children are those in the majority and the ones that face the greatest dangers.
During the first Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, these women and girls should assume their proper place at the center of world concern.
The summit brings together governments, U.N. agencies, private donors and nonprofit organizations. These are all important stakeholders. If they listen to the mothers, daughters and sisters who are suffering in conflict situations not of their own making, we can hope that something can be done for women such as Hala.
The 23-year-old woman from Aleppo, the Syrian city at the center of recent fighting, is among 40 refugee women and girls in northern Europe interviewed by Amnesty International.
Hala described the steady stream of invitations to transactional sex that she gets as a refugee. “At the hotel in Turkey, one of the men working with the smuggler, a Syrian man, said if I sleep with him, I will not pay or pay less,” she is quoted as saying. “Of course I said no, it was disgusting. The same happened in Jordan to all of us.”
‘She Said No, She’s Stranded Now’
She added: “My friend who came with me from Syria ran out of money in Turkey, so the smuggler’s assistant offered her to have sex with him [in exchange for a place on a boat]. She of course said no, and couldn’t leave Turkey. She’s stranded there.”
A very short distance separates transactional sex for safety from coercion or rape.
And as women and girls have learned repeatedly over the centuries, a man making such a bargain often leaves behind an unwanted pregnancy, a sexually transmitted infection or both.
There is also the growing problem of young girls being forced into early marriage by the financial desperation of their refugee parents or relatives.
The United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, has described a minimal set of actions that should be implemented to respond to reproductive health needs at the onset of a humanitarian crisis. This package of responses can help women such as Hala deal with their traumas of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted infections once they arrive to the refugee camps.
This package has been designed by a number of international actors that assist migrants and refugees; the World Health Organization, U.N. agencies, charitable organizations and academics.
The package includes training health professionals to prevent and confront gender-based sexual violence, reduce HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as prevent neonatal and maternal morbidity.
However, in reality there is often a long list of gaps in access to newborn care, long acting and permanent family planning methods, antiretroviral therapy at the primary care level and safeguards against sexual violence.
Fixing this problem begins with more donors dedicating funding for reproductive health programs, particularly family planning and abortion care. These services must have specific budget lines that can be monitored and accounted for. They must become a priority in all humanitarian plans, manuals and policies and be clearly reflected in funding for capacity building.
According to UNFPA, 507 women and adolescent girls die every day because they lack reproductive health services in humanitarian emergencies. This must stop.
World leaders at the Humanitarian Summit have an opportunity. They must step up for the millions of women and girls caught in intersecting forms of discrimination in perilous refugee crises. We will be waiting to hear of both financial and political commitments to end the unspeakable torments that so many women and girls continue to suffer.