I find the commonly used term ‘migration’ highly political in nature. In humanitarian crisis parlance it refers to “the movements of refugees and internally displaced people” (IDPs). It is and cannot be a value-neutral word in humanitarian contexts because in such contexts migration is not self-induced. Humanitarian workers like me have not seen prior desire or motivation to leave among the migrants or if at all there has been a motivation, it has been induced by poverty or armed conflict or war. Not surprisingly, the main causes of migration remain wars and armed conflicts, although in many other contexts natural disasters and large-development projects are also to blame. For example, migration forced by ‘development induced displacement’ in the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh in India. There are other types of forced migration as well, but these are not rigid categories since overlaps are common.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 50 million displaced people around the world, including both refugees and IDPs. Around 75-80 per cent of them are women and children; women and girls account for an estimated 50 per cent of any displaced population. The causes and effects of forced migration vary and range from political, socio-economic, environmental and cultural factors, and according to factors such as gender, class, age, race, or ethnicity. The proportion of women refugees and IDPs vis-à-vis men from the same context is particularly affected by the cultural factors.
Globally, since the 1980s, there has been growing recognition that not adequate attention has been given to women in conflict situations, and their needs and capacities did not form the basis of planning and implementation of humanitarian assistance. But the growth in recognition remains slow and limited and results of this recognition have not led to more than a few women/girl child specific projects.
Throughout the 1990s, women’s rights advocates raised the issue of women’s bodies being used as battlegrounds by the warring factions in a conflict and sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls in humanitarian response and in development induced disaster situations. The adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Charter of the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325, and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women by the UN have been milestones in the effort towards gender mainstreaming and recognition of women’s/girls’ rights.
In the humanitarian and development fields, I find that gender analysis of the needs and capacities of women and men and girls are being taken into account but regrettably in an ad-hoc manner. Culture, tradition, family unity, religion, etc continue to be used as excuses for not responding to transformative gender needs. This observation is not a reflection on only small community based or local level non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather it is based on experiences with larger international NGOs, international institutions and organs of the national governments. At the national, regional and international governance level, gender based discrimination and denial of the rights of women asylum seekers continue to be a reality. It is not surprising that even in the programmes run by the international institutions and large international NGOs, immediate protection and assistance of women/girl IDPs with their participation and decision-making remains a need yet to be met. The process to engender the migration discourse and response is relatively new and still evolving. There is increased awareness of the differences in wider effects of migration caused by conflict, large infrastructure development, or natural disaster. International and humanitarian organizations are waking up to these considerations. But most of the recognition remains limited to the text. Action on gender analysis and implementation of gender guidelines and policies is still weak. Gender issues have been relatively readily accepted in protection of and assistance to refugees. The same cannot be said of assistance to the IDPs. Also, among IDPs in context of natural disasters and ‘development induced displacement’ acceptance of engendering approach is the least.
In the recent times, a major development has been the move towards seeing the rape and sexual abuse of women and girls during wars and armed conflict as a deliberate strategy and a crime to be punished, as reflected in the UN Security Council Resolution 1820 passed in 2008 and the statutes for the War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. However, the move does not always cover the sexual exploitation and abuse that take place as a consequence of political instability and conflict. For example, in Nepal, the conflict between the Maoists and the State, put Nepali women in the eastern hill areas at a higher risk of abuse. At one end women were being pressurized to join the militia, at the other end, if they fled to escape poverty and militia, trafficking for sex work was a major threat. Such women, even if rescued, were rarely reintegrated with their communities because of the associated stigma. The situation has not been any different for Bantu women in Somalia, a country located far from Nepal in East Africa. Starvation and sexual violence were the two most important factors for fleeing Somalia during war in 1990s. Bantu women, young and old, suffered multiple rapes while fleeing and in the IDP and refugee camps. Rape created an acute sense of disempowerment among both women and men. While women and girls were being raped, men and male children were forced to watch the sexual persecution of their female relatives. In the camps it was not uncommon to find sexual exploitation of male children. Most of these cases went unreported out the fear of stigma or out of a not-so-far from reality belief that no action will be taken either by the state machinery or the international actors.
It is not such an uncommon knowledge that displacement affects women and men differently because of the pre-determined gender division of roles and responsibilities. Though war is seen as a ‘male affair’, mostly women, children, the elderly, and the disabled are the main victims of wars. It is estimated that they constitute 30-90 per cent of casualties. In low informal low-key armed conflicts, women and children are 80 per cent of casualties by small arms and the rest are military causalities. Among such casualties the number of young men is far higher. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) men account for 96 per cent of the detainee population and 90 per cent of the missing, and women and children represent a majority of the displaced. For example, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the IDPs in Somalia are women and children. In Nepal, a large percentage of IDPs are women in the age group of 20-35 years of age.
It is generally said that a war does not discriminate and that it targets all in its range: women, men, children, livestock, and so on. The reality, however, is that women are not just affected as civilians or targeted because they happen to be in the range. Rather they are targeted because of their gender. Armed conflict usually aggravates social and gender inequalities and makes those who lack social power or have disadvantaged position in society particularly vulnerable. Weaker population groups and women usually have less access to education and training opportunities and have poor employability and entrepreneurial skills. Because of their low educational and training levels, they are not among the ‘favoured’ type of migrants. Due to their poor social status and their traditional productive and reproductive roles they are also not used to mobility. This is one of the reasons that lead to higher mortality and morbidity among women and impoverished minorities during armed conflict. Other factors include a lack of access to basic goods and services, and gender discrimination against women.
Since a larger portion of the migrants are women and because they are a group without marketable skills and education, and are denied rights to own and control assets and property, they experience distinct economic and social problems as migrants. It is much harder for them to earn a living and support themselves and their families financially while continuing to be the traditional ‘carers’ at home. This pushes them further towards hunger, malnutrition, and exploitation. Not surprisingly, among displaced populations, women and girls ‘voluntarily’ resort to sex work. A recent survey by UNHCR in Bassaso IDP camps in Somalia reveals that considerable number of young women offer sex in exchange of basic services to meet their own and their families’ basic needs or for protection. In Nepal, poverty and conflict have been two major factors prompting women to seek opportunities in neighbouring India as well as far away countries. A Nepali NGO, Saathi, has reported an ever increasing number of women leaving villages. Many of these women are falling prey to traffickers who lead them to the brothels in India or to the Arab countries. In some cases women know the consequences, yet they have gone ahead ‘voluntarily’ as they had no option. Between June 2003 to February 2006, the Kathmandu Post regularly reported the increase in rural to urban migration as a result of insurgency and increase in violence. They reported dramatic increase in sex work along the highways and in the dance and cabin restaurants close to Kathmandu.
Migration is also associated with the lack or disruption of basic services, including healthcare. The absence or disruption of the health services during high migration period when women and girls are at a greater risk of being sexually abused, exploited, contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and getting pregnant and infected by HIV/AIDS complicates women’s vulnerabilities. The spread of HIV/AIDS is further fuelled by sexual violence in the armed conflict contexts. HIV positive women and girls are targets of socio-economic violence.
The increased inequalities caused by globalization have increased women's vulnerability to violence, particularly in the context of economic migration and trafficking in persons. A new survey from Somalia conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in conjunction with the AIDS Commissions of Somaliland, Puntland and the South-central Somalia found that internally displaced women, illegal immigrants and street children were particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and HIV/AIDS, often resorting to ‘survival sex' to earn a living, with some women accepting food or items for their children or qat (a mild intoxicant) in exchange for sex. According to a survey conducted by General Welfare Pratisthan around the market of Hetauda in Nepal in 2004, 98 per cent of the sex workers, most of whom are displaced women, are aware of the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS and spread of STDs, not more than 60 per cent have been making use of condoms. The reason is their poor bargaining capacity in relation to their customers and no power in relation to their abusers and exploiters.
However, not all effects of migration on women are bad. Some women gain greater mobility and are able to use opportunities to learn new skills and assume new roles. In many countries, some migrant women regard changes in their lives as a result of migration an empowering experience as has been reported from some of the Tamil IDP camps in Sri Lanka. I also saw this in Somalia. However, such gains for women do not go without contentions which create further tensions in gender relations. In the meetings held on the issue of increasing political participation of Somali women in the governance and democratic institutions, I often came across an argument from men that women should not be allowed equal representation and participation because they are already the breadwinners of majority of the Somali households. Research conducted in Nepal indicates that men find it difficult to cope with their reduced ability to fulfil their traditional responsibilities. In such instances men use the social power over women more aggressively leading to higher incidence of violence against women and girls. But women facing domestic/social violence find it harder to gain refuge in another country. The 1951 Refugee Convention, popularly known as the Geneva Convention, on which most countries’ asylum laws are based, considers refugees “persons outside their country of nationality who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”. The Geneva Convention does not include violence against women or gender based violence as a form of persecution despite decades long struggle of women’s rights advocates to get the countries to recognize violence against women or gender based violence as a ground to seek refuge.
Migrant women and girls living in the refugee/IDP camps suffer from rape, early pregnancies, kidnapping, and forced marriage. Girls and young women from the marginalized ethnic groups are one of the most vulnerable. For examples, in Somalia, rape and sexual abuse in IDP camps is common but marginalized ethnic Bantus and Ogadenis women and girls suffered from greater risk. Traditionally, shelter is organized in consultation with men Somali women and girls living in refugee camps in Kenya have also been the target of rape and sexual attack by other Somalis, Kenyan police and soldiers. In some instances, the design of camps adds to women’s and girls’ discomforts and insecurities. For instance, communal housing offers no privacy for women, while lone women and girls housed in marked tents may become easy targets of sexual abuse. The survey conducted by the UNHCR in Bassaso, Somalia indicates that women are often sexually or physically attacked going out for toilets or for the collection of fuel wood and water.
The women/girl child-specific projects of the national and international NGOs and international institutions are not at all enough to address gendered needs of women migrants. Though there is a move towards an inclusive approach but it has focused attention on wider issues but the attention is usually around the immediate needs of women. Conceptualization of transformation of gender roles and relations to eliminate inequalities in the long-term are greatly lacking. Unless gender role and relation transformation is aimed and greater attention is paid to the impact of policies and programmes on the displaced in general, and women in particular, the issues around women’s participation and decision-making in redressing their challenges around migration cannot be secured. In the absence of a vision for gender role and relation change, encouraging women to assume new roles may merely increase their work burden. It is not possible to get women to perform leadership roles or an equal role without challenging the gender stereotypes and biases because they will not have institutional or social support to fulfil these roles.
While specificities may vary from country to country and culture to culture the broader trends indicate that women are more vulnerable to sexual and other types of gender-based violence, and they are frequently forced to cope with more and different roles in the search for their survival and that of their families. They are forced to take on greater role and responsibilities than before in an environment of gender-based discrimination and disempowerment. Such inequalities have to be confronted and addressed to allow women to acquire more skills, confidence, and gender and political consciousness. There is also a need to engage with men towards changing the gender roles and relations to ensure that their coping capacity in context of displacement and their abilities to evolve in the face of challenges to their traditional gender roles and identity is adequately supported.
Another significant thing to remember is that not all women and men are affected in the same manner and proportion by displacement. Factors such as class, age, race, ethnicity, and rural/urban differences, as well as wider political and socio-economic issues affect their experiences. In order to address the ‘involuntary’ migration, the issues affecting both marginalized men and women and particular challenges of women need specific attention. The start off point towards that is to improve representation of marginalized men and of women in the decision-making in such contexts.
 Mertus, J.A., ‘War’s Offensive on Women. The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan’. Humanitarianism and War Project: Kumarian Press, 2000.