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Women displaced by war

26-02-2007 Interview

On the occasion of International Women's Day (8 March), Florence Tercier, ICRC's women and war adviser, explains why the plight of displaced women is a particularly difficult one.

   

   
       
   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Florence Tercier, ICRC's women and war adviser.    
     

 In what ways does displacement have an especially severe effect on women?  

For all who are its victims, displacement has tragic consequences: loss of their familiar environment, their points of reference and their sources of income, and often separation from family members. Furthermore, the causes of displacement and the attendant circumstances are most often traumatic, whether the people concerned are driven from their homes by force or whether flight is the only way of staying alive.

Women are particularly severely affected by displacement, not only because they find themselves in a situation where, without their menfolk, they no longer benefit from traditional protection mechanisms and are therefore at risk from violence and exploitation, but also because they have to perform both their usual domestic tasks and new tasks which they have to take over in the absence of their husbands or other male members of their communities. In addition, they have to meet the needs of their children and see to their education.

I have met women in various contexts who have to take risks, sometimes enormous, on a daily basis in order to survive and to guarantee the survival of their families. Going out to look for work, foraging for food in the forest or fields and fetching wood or water may expose them to grave dangers. Every day they have to face the same dilemma: balancing these risks with the necessity to provide for the immediate needs of the family.

 Women have shown remarkable strength in adversity and ingenuity in situations of displacement. Can you give some examples of how they manage to cope?  

 

I have often had the opportunity to observe that in situations of displacement women become the mainstay of the family and the community. They know how to get organized, both within the household and with other women on whose solidarity they can count. They have to manage several responsibilities and innumerable tasks at the same time, without having the choice of doing otherwise.

For example, women can be seen carrying out activities which in normal times are the preserve of the men in their communities, such as building, commerce, transport or loading trucks. Women often set up cooperatives or associations where they can work together and provide each other with material, financial and also moral support.

Obviously, then, war changes the status of women, whether within the family or in the community, precisely because it obliges them to take on different functions and play different roles. These changes may have a positive effect, enhancing the women’s autonomy and standing, but they can also have severe consequences for the women themselves and hence for their children. On the one hand they may be overwhelmed by the weight of their responsibilities and tasks, and on the other they sometimes meet with disapproval precisely because the important role they play goes beyond the social or cultural boundaries within which they are usually confined. 

 What ICRC activities are specifically intended to aid women displaced by war?  

 

The ICRC’s first concern is to make contact with displaced women so as to understand their circumstances, their experiences, their worries and their needs. In attempting to meet those needs in as appropriate a manner as possible, the ICRC in fact works for the benefit of everyone who has been displaced by armed conflict, for example by providing shelter, food and other relief supplies.

 

 
  © ICRC / B. Heger / td-e-00076    
 
  Refugee camp in Farchana, eastern Chad. Daily market.
 
    Some programmes are designed to help women recover their means of production by providing them with various forms of support, ranging from the distribution of seed, tools and agricultural materials to more specific projects such as livestock rearing, market gardening or the operation of mills, together with training in different domains appropriate to the prevailing economic environment.

To reduce the risk of attacks on women as they go about their work, the ICRC builds or improves water supply points close to where displaced women have settled.

The ICRC’s activities in the area of health are aimed more specifically at pregnant women, who receive proper care before, during and after childbirth, and at victims of sexual violence, who are given appropriate treatment and psychological and social support.

As part of its efforts to promote international humanitarian law, the ICRC targets bearers of weapons with strong messages emphasizing the protection that must be afforded to women.

Finally, the risks faced by displaced women, like their needs, vary with the different stages of displacement, that is, before and during flight, during the period of displacement, and on their return to their homes. These risks and needs are many and acute, and it is through discussion with the women themselves that ways can be found to avoid the dangers and meet the needs arising from displacement.