Women’s Commission Urges Passage of the Widows and Orphans Bill
Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) today introduced a bill to provide special protection to displaced women and children who face abuse and harm due to their gender, and have no way to gain safety. As armed conflict and human rights abuses escalate around the world, women and children are typically most at risk of displacement and violation of their rights. Despite this fact, they are often bypassed for resettlement. The Widows and Orphans bill would ensure that the most endangered women and children would be able to find safe haven in the United States. “This legislation would for the first time address gaps in protection that jeopardize the safety of women and children who face serious harm as a result of persecution in either their home or host country,” says Wendy Young, director of government relations. “It will go a long way to protect women and children who are separated from or have lost their families and communities — the ones most vulnerable to violence, exploitation, torture, or loss of life.”
Widows, for example, are at risk of abuses such as rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, trafficking, forced marriages and gender-based violence. Orphans are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, servitude, child prostitution, and recruitment as child soldiers. These abuses may be inflicted by military or guerilla forces, peacekeeping troops, members of the host or refugee community, or even aid workers.
Despite the abuses they face, protection for women and children is often lacking or even non-existent. Voluntary return or integration into the local community are in many cases not viable options for widows, orphans, or other women and children. Many have lost their traditional protectors, i.e. family members, while others may be ostracized as a result of the abuses they have experienced. A woman or girl who has been raped, for example, may be viewed as having shamed her family and community.
Although 80 percent of the world’s refugees are women and children, experts estimate that less than 500 women at risk are provided resettlement opportunities in the United States each year. Nearly 30,000 refugees were resettled in the United States last year. Unaccompanied children are the beneficiaries of even fewer slots; the Sudanese “Lost Boys” who arrived in 2001 numbered approximately 300, by far the most unaccompanied children to be admitted in years.
“Too many of these women and children fall through the cracks of the refugee resettlement system, which does not formally allow for the resettlement of women and children at risk,” Young says. “To qualify, they must have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country, which means women who face abuse in their host country are not included. Resettlement is also not available to women who are at risk of human rights abuses while still in their own country.” Women in Muslim countries who have been sentenced to death by stoning for charges of adultery, as in the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria, cannot be considered for resettlement under current U.S. policy. Nor could women who have been forced to marry their rapists to protect family honor, in another example.
The Widows and Orphans bill would permit severely abused women and children to resettle in the United States and offer them permanent residence and refugee benefits. “The bill would allow these women and children to enjoy their basic rights and begin their lives anew, in safety and dignity,” Young says.