For more than 100 years, March 8 has been celebrated as International Women’s Day. And for more than 100 years, the day has provided a chance to take stock of the status of women and women’s rights around the world.
While it’s indisputable that the situation has improved for some women, there’s still a long way to go before women everywhere are recognized for their strength, their abilities, and their leadership capacities.
This is especially true for women and girls who have been uprooted by conflict and crisis. Of the more than 68 million people who have been forced from their homes by violence, persecution, and human rights violations, the majority—75 to 80 percent—are women and children.
By all accounts, the global displacement crisis is not a blip or a short-term problem that will go away anytime soon. In fact, many refugees will be displaced for over 20 years. More than 60 percent of them will be living in urban areas. It’s a long-term problem that requires investment in long-term, comprehensive approaches. And these must include strategies for advancing gender equality and enabling refugees to rebuild their lives and move toward self-reliance.
This means listening to women and girls. It means giving them access to education and skills training, and to health services, including sexual and reproductive health. It means preventing, not just responding to, sexual and gender-based violence. And it means creating the space for refugee women to step into their rightful place as leaders.
A first step is to recognize that displaced women are not just vulnerable people in need. They are resilient survivors—coping and adapting to the profound changes and traumatic events that have upended their lives. We must stop thinking of them merely as victims to be assisted. They have strengths, skills and capacities that can—and should—be tapped and supported.
Sadly, however, too few humanitarian programs focus on leveraging women’s inherent capacity to realize their own empowerment and advancement. We must support innovative programs that can transform long-term displacement into opportunities that benefit refugees—including refugee women—and host communities alike.
For example, programs that provide opportunities for refugee to earn a living need to start early in a crisis and be optimized so that they more intentionally move people toward a path to self-reliance. Our research shows that when refugee women receive cash transfers rather than handouts of food and other supplies, and when this is done with a gender lens (taking account of the specific needs and assets of women), it can help prevent and mitigate gender-based violence, as well as strengthen the dignity and choice of crisis-affected populations. And we believe that when cash transfers are coupled with capacity-building activities, such as financial literacy training, they can support women’s opportunity to more robustly and safely move into the workforce—both formal and informal—and stimulate local economies.
The humanitarian community must also meaningfully engage national and local partners to inform and lead the response to crises. This includes organizations of women with disabilities, which play a critical role in promoting the rights of women and girls with disabilities who are affected by conflict or crisis. The expertise of organizations of women with disabilities remains largely ignored, which is a huge oversight.
The decisions we make about how to help refugee women and girls will affect their entire lives, and the lives of their families and communities, which is why refugee women’s full participation is critical to the design and implementation of more effective and inclusive humanitarian responses. When women have the tools and resources they need, they themselves can change the dynamic around them. They can not only survive, they can thrive.
At the Women’s Refugee Commission, we believe that if you get it right for girls and women, you get it right for humanitarian action in general. That’s why for 30 years we’ve been advocating for major shifts in humanitarian practice, such as ensuring that sexual and reproductive health care is available at the onset of a crisis and that women have access to safe livelihood opportunities. It’s why we’re working to prevent gender-based violence. And it’s the reason we’ve shone a spotlight on refugees with disabilities, and are spending so much time at the US-Mexico border identifying violations against asylum-seeking women and children.
Today, we stand proudly in solidarity with refugee women and girls around the world and recommit ourselves to promoting gender equality and self-reliance.