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  • A Message from Sarah Costa, the Women's Refugee Commission’s New Executive Director

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    New Executive Director, Sarah Costa
    Sarah Costa, Executive Director

    I’m thrilled to be on board as the new executive director of the Women's Refugee Commission. I’ve followed the work of this incredible organization for many years—initially when I was at the Ford Foundation and more recently at the Global Fund for Women. I’m a huge supporter of what the Commission has done in the past 21 years, and am humbled and honored by the opportunity to contribute to its future.

    I come to the Women's Refugee Commission with a long history of involvement in women’s rights and development, including reproductive health. During the more than 25 years I lived in Brazil, I worked as a researcher and professor of public health, focusing on women’s health, and was a grant maker for the Ford Foundation.

    For the past four years I’ve run the East Coast operation of the Global Fund for Women, a fund that makes grants to local women’s groups around the world. Both at the Ford Foundation and the Global Fund for Women, I had opportunities to work with the Women's Refugee Commission.

    All this is to say that I’m passionate about my work. I have had the privilege of working with and supporting very creative and talented people, which has allowed me to see that, through great persistence, change is possible. It has also taught me the importance of building networks and fostering partnerships on the ground in order to move things forward at both the policy and program levels. All these things are integral to the work of the Women's Refugee Commission.

    Critical Services Still Needed for Displaced Haitians with Disabilities

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    Loufin (left) and Mara (right) in
    Corail Camp.

    Drivers honked and yelled angrily as two wheelchairs rolled down the bustling street in Port-au-Prince, stopping traffic and catching the gaze of curious bystanders. A director of “Helping Hands, Haiti” cheered for the earthquake survivors as they wheeled through the commotion, commenting that the novelty of this scene still shocks many Haitians. At least 2,000-4,000 people underwent amputations as a result of January’s catastrophic earthquake, with some unofficial estimates placing the number closer to 10,000. This surge in the disabled population is part of what psychologists refer to when they evoke Haiti’s “new normal,” or "nouvo nomal"—an expression that is slowly being adapted into the local vocabulary and mindset.

    This new visibility is an opportunity to increase awareness about disabilities in the community and among relief organizations. Often, people with disabilities are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance and are forgotten when specialized services are offered in times of emergencies. In light of these concerns, the Women’s Refugee Commission sent a team to Haiti in July to conduct workshop trainings entitled “Facilitating Access and Promoting Inclusion for People with Disabilities” for international and local governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The workshops were based on our resource kit for field workers entitled “Disabilities Among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations” and geared toward Haiti’s post-earthquake context. Our team also facilitated focus groups in camps for internally displaced people to determine how well the needs of the camps’ disabled residents are being met.

    A Closer Look Inside Arizona Detention Centers: Calling for More Access and Oversight

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    Driving up to the Central Arizona Detention Center (CADC), all you see is a vast empty stretch of desert reaching south to the U.S/Mexico border. Electric fencing and concertina wire ring the facility and armed guards patrol the grounds under the unyielding Arizona sun. When you enter, all your belongings must be left in lockers before you walk through metal detectors. From what I can tell, these days there is no real difference between a detention center and a jail—especially since many of these facilities house both criminal and non-criminal populations.

    My colleagues and I went to Arizona to meet with immigrant detainees nearly a year after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced its commitment to overhaul immigration detention. We planned this trip in order to get a sense of how these new policies and procedures were being carried out on the ground. We know through our years of research and advocacy on this issue that there is no better way to understand this than to meet with detainees and staff inside these centers. Access and transparency are critical to our work.

    Commemorating World Humanitarian Day

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    Today we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, honoring the men and women who devote their lives to the challenging and dangerous work of providing humanitarian aid.

    Every day, dedicated aid workers bring relief and support to people forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict and natural disaster. There are over 40 million displaced people in the world today—and women, children and youth make up nearly 80 percent of this extremely vulnerable population. The Women’s Refugee Commission works closely with humanitarian professionals to identify and meet the needs of women and children in displacement settings. We provide recommendations and resources that help aid workers address critical concerns, such as making priority reproductive health services available to women and girls in emergencies. We are proud to support relief workers in their crucial and committed efforts on the ground.

    Prepping for a "Second Disaster" in Pakistan

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    Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC

    At least 1,600 people have been killed and 20 million impacted by the flooding throughout Pakistan.

    "People are being forced to drink bad water and we're seeing an increased number of diarrhea cases and skin infections. And that is going to be the big challenge going forward. That's the second disaster.", says Peter Biro, IRC senior communications officer.

    Please click here to read this full blog post, written by our affiliate organization, The International Rescue Committee, and to read CNN's article, in which Peter Biro talks further about the current situation in Pakistan.


    International Youth Day

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    International Youth Day

    Today marks International Youth Day. For the more than 8 million displaced young people—ages 15 to 24—around the world, there is little cause for celebration. Most of these young people are not in school—and many have never even been to school. The majority struggle to find work and are often unemployed. Sadly, the reality for most refugee youth is that they will be displaced from their homes for an average of 17 years.

    This year’s Youth Day theme is Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, which reminds me of a conversation I had in Amman, Jordan, with a young man from Iraq named Abdul. Abdul1 is 18 years old, slightly built with a charming smile. When we first met, he told me, “I have talked to people like you before, but nothing changes.” After hearing his story, I understand why he said this. Abdul is originally from northern Iraq, which suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. And yet, he told me that had there been no war, he would have finished school and “had a future.”

    Reducing the Risks of Gender-Based Violence: Moving from Theory to Practice

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    GBV workshop participants conducted an assessment of women’s participation in the market and the protection risks they face in Juba, South Sudan. Here they talk to the owner of a hardware store.

    The Women’s Refugee Commission has been conducting a series of trainings around the world on “mitigating risks of gender-based violence.” These trainings focus specifically on developing and implementing programs that improve women’s economic opportunities and provide safe access to cooking fuel as tools to protect women and girls against sexual violence and abuse.

    Our journey down this path began with a body of work we initially undertook to address the shortcomings of economic programming in humanitarian settings. Notably, these programs have seldom been based on the needs of the local market. Over a two-year period, we conducted assessments around the world in a variety of contexts, including in refugee camps, urban areas with large refugee populations, situations of internal displacement and countries where refugees have returned once a conflict has ended.

    Six Months Later: Reproductive Health Needs Are Still Critical in Haiti

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    Little Girl Martone Haiti
    Haiti, six months after January's devastating earthquake

    Haiti’s city blocks and rural roads are still strewn with mounds of ruins, and an estimated 2 million people remain displaced as a result of the devastating earthquake that shook the island nation on January 12. Today, which marks the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, thousands of homeless families and individuals are living in tents and makeshift shelters in the 1,342 camps and settlement sites1 that have sprung up around the country. As aid organizations take stock of the displaced population’s current struggle for survival - and the challenges that loom ahead - the Women’s Refugee Commission is committed to making sure reproductive health remains a priority.

    Addressing reproductive health has not always been a primary concern for humanitarian actors in crises. Such an oversight can have tragic consequences - especially given that women and girls are particularly vulnerable in emergencies. According to the World Bank and UN agencies, eight of the ten countries with the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world are fragile or conflict-affected countries. Displacement settings create risk factors for sexual violence and exploitation, the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unwanted pregnancies and subsequent unsafe abortions. The risk of maternal and newborn death and disability rises significantly when mothers do not have access to care for pregnancy-related health complications. In recent years, the international humanitarian community has aimed to reduce and respond to these concerns with a coordinated set of priority interventions known as the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for reproductive health.

    Struggling to Make a Living in Ethiopia: Surviving in the Informal Economy

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    Ethiopia Somali Region Field Visit

    Food is scarce in Ethiopia, where most of the population lives in rural, drought-prone areas in a state of chronic poverty. In 2010, the Government of Ethiopia identified 5.2 million people in need of emergency food aid. Not surprisingly, this hunger crisis also impacts the thousands of refugees living just within Ethiopia’s borders.

    In the isolated eastern corner of Ethiopia, some 44,000 Somali refugees are scattered among four refugee camps, living in the arid heat on parched land. Most of these refugees survive on one meal a day and are dependent on humanitarian aid to meet their most basic needs. Over the years it has become clear that the aid just isn’t enough. Families are routinely forced to exchange food rations for other staples, such as medicine, school clothes and firewood for cooking. With no reliable source of income, families face difficult choices.

    Most host countries do not grant refugees the right to work, and Ethiopia is no different. As a result, refugees are pushed into working in the informal economy where the risk of exploitation and abuse is far greater—particularly for women and girls. In camps like Aw Barre and Sheder, which are far from local markets, families often send their daughters to work as live-in domestic servants. This is dangerous work for the girls, as they have no protection from their families or the law.

    Join Us in Support of the HELP Act (Humane Enforcement and Legal Protection for Separated Children Act)

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    Immigration enforcement has drastically increased in the United States over the last few years. And children have become victims of expanded detention and deportation policies that are carried out without adequate consideration of the consequences enforcement can have on family unity. One out of every twenty children in the U.S. faces the possibility of returning home to discover a parent has been detained or deported.

    Miguel, an eight-year-old U.S. citizen, came home from school one day to find his parents missing and his two-year-old brother alone. He didn’t know that his parents had been detained by U.S. immigration authorities and that they wouldn’t be coming home. So Miguel stayed home to take care of his brother—never knowing what happened to his mom and dad—for seven days before his grandmother arrived to help.

    While current enforcement policies do include some guidelines to protect children, these protections are by no means comprehensive or universal. As a result children—many of them U.S. citizens—have become especially vulnerable. Parents who are taken into immigration custody are rarely granted a phone call to make child care arrangements until they arrive at an immigration detention facility—sometimes days or even weeks after they were first apprehended. Miguel was home alone for so many days because of the simple lack of a policy guaranteeing his parents a phone call to arrange for someone to care for him.