Women and displacement: strength in adversity

02-03-2010 Interview

The displacement of populations is one of the gravest consequences of today's armed conflicts. It affects women in a host of ways. But far from being helpless victims, women are resourceful, resilient and courageous in the face of hardship. Nadine Puechguirbal, the ICRC adviser on women and war explains.

Why is the ICRC raising awareness of women displaced by armed conflicts worldwide on International Women's Day?

Nadine PuechguirbalWe want not only to draw attention to the plight of these women but also to acknowledge their tremendous courage and resilience in ensuring the survival of their families in hostile and unfamiliar circumstances.
I think it is equally important to raise awareness of the specific threats women face as a result of displacement. All too often, women and children are lumped together as the most vulnerable group. However, the two are very different groups, each with specific vulnerabilities and needs.
Women are not totally helpless. Our idea is to move away from assumptions and stereotypes and instead call attention to women’s specific needs, vulnerabilities in wartime, and indeed the remarkable strength they show in protecting and supporting their families and finding ingenuous ways of coping with their ordeal.

Why in armed conflicts are displaced women often at greater risk than displaced men?

The overwhelming majority of armed conflicts are started, organized and led by men, yet women represent a large proportion of war victims. During an armed conflict, civilians not participating in the hostilities are often forced to flee their homes to avoid being caught up in violence. Women and their families are compelled to leave behind their homes and communities. In the ensuing panic and chaos, many women find themselves alone with their children to look after single-handedly. Imagine the pain of being brutally uprooted from perhaps the safest place you have known your whole life.

Displaced women often have to travel long distances to find water, food...and other essentials. In so doing, they put themselves at great risk of sexual violence...

Suddenly, women have to shoulder all the daily responsibilities for ensuring their own survival and that of their families, which many do by drawing on their resourcefulness and courage. Displaced women often have to travel long distances to find water, food, firewood, medicines and other essentials. In so doing, they put themselves at great risk of sexual violence, abuse and injury from landmines or unexploded ordnance, among other dangers. The burden of family responsibility, coupled with the anguish and trauma of sudden loss, also takes a huge toll on the women’s health.

In cultures where women may only travel when accompanied by a male relative, the separation from her husband can restrict a woman's ability to flee from hostilities. She may also lack the necessary identification documents to cross checkpoints or international boarders, or the funds to pay for transport. Reports abound of women being harassed at border crossings and checkpoints.
A camp or IDP community may offer displaced women relative safety but does not end their plight. On the contrary, the camp environment can present new risks and burdens. Whereas women might have relied on family and kinship networks for food and resource sharing, separation from their families and communities deprives them of this support.

Lack of resources may lead to situations where, by virtue of their sex, women are relegated to last place in terms of access to food or water, meaning, they eat less and last. There is also a real danger of their resorting to exchanging sexual favours for food or other essentials. Lack of safety and privacy in camps may expose women to health problems, for instance by increasing the risk of sexual violence. The trauma of their experience, conflict-related injury, sexual violence and unplanned pregnancy will inevitably increase women’s need for health care. Yet displacement can hinder their access to quality health care at a time when they need it most.

Rather than being passive victims, women in conflict situations often find ingenuous ways of coping. Could you give us examples?

The media commonly portray women as passive victims of fighting; a poignant story to move and influence public opinion and gain audience interest. Whilst women all too often suffer horrific violence and cruelty in times of war, I feel it is important to go beyond this portrayal to fully understand their ordeal, without downplaying it.
ICRC delegates often witness the remarkable courage of displaced women: exploiting available resources; finding food and shelter for their dependents; and organizing themselves into associations in order to have a stronger, unified voice.

Harrowing stories occasionally surface from the Democratic Republic of the Congo about sexual violence meted out to women. That some survive to support themselves – and often their children, born of their ordeal and ostracized by their families – testifies to the women’s strength. In North Kivu psychosocial workers, supported by the ICRC, counsel women victims of rape and help them rebuild their lives.

The organization enables the women to carry out income-generating projects to strengthen their self-reliance. In Iraq, displaced women are exceptionally resourceful and determined to ensure the survival of their families. Deprived of traditional sources of income, women are forced to adopt new roles – defying social expectations and through whatever means possible, including manual labour – to earn money and put food on the table.

Women play a vital role in maintaining the health and welfare of their family and community. Their role in preventing and managing sickness and disease is essential when access to health care is limited. During emergencies women may assist in delivering babies in their communities when trained medical personnel are out of reach. Traditional birth attendants may offer the only reproductive health care for many displaced women and their infants.

Those who seek to help IDPs must pay greater attention to the views of displaced women. How does the ICRC go about this?

Firstly, the ICRC is aware that in IDP camps, a woman's voice often goes unheard, meaning her specific needs are overlooked. Women tend to avoid talking openly about their most personal needs, so it is vital to create a safe space for dialogue regarding their concerns. To ensure that women are neither ignored nor exploited, the ICRC increasingly involves them in planning, implementing and evaluating programmes.
We also recognize that the concept of women as passive beneficiaries is incapacitating and can result in excluding women from humanitarian efforts. Yet failure to consult women about their needs or involve them in planning projects affects the quality, efficiency and efficacy of assistance. The ICRC knows that women are generally responsible for their families' food needs. Therefore their input is critical in determining the type and quantity of food the organization distributes, and the location of food distribution points, for safety reasons and easy access.

Experience has shown that when women are asked for input directly, their views and priorities differ from those of the men who purport to speak for them. This is true of Casamance, in Senegal, where women participate in community meetings. At such meetings, the ICRC ensures that women’s voices are heard, and has found that their insight strengthens our ability to respond to the needs of the population in general.

In using International Women's Day to draw attention to displaced women, the ICRC is giving a voice to women who have responded actively to their plight, thereby revealing their strength and resilience to overcome appalling suffering and ultimately emerge stronger.

How does the ICRC take into account the fact that the needs of women often differ from those of men or children?

We recognize the particular ways in which conflict and displacement affect women: the specific dangers and threats; and the social transformation that may occur when women assume new responsibilities. Obviously, women, men, boys and girls are exposed to different risks. While men make up the vast majority of those killed, detained or made to disappear during war, women are increasingly targeted as civilians and exposed to sexual violence.
We have developed a more sensitive and thorough understanding of the roles, responsibilities and experiences of women and men. In turn, this is allowing us to tailor our response more accurately to the specific needs of women and men in times of conflict.


Dmenisi municipality, Georgia 

Dmenisi municipality, Georgia. Displaced women about to receive clothes and shoes distributed by the ICRC.
© ICRC / VII/A. Kratochvil / GE-E-00550

Women at a camp for displaced people in Darfur, Sudan 

Women at a camp for displaced people in Darfur, Sudan, fetch water chlorinated by the ICRC.
© British Red Cross Society / L. Daines / sd-e-01558

Amran governorate, Yemen 

Amran governorate, Yemen. A woman displaced by fighting in Yemen collects relief goods distributed by the ICRC through the Yemen Red Crescent Society.
© ICRC / B. Maver / ye-e-00719